Keith Earls inspires Munster against Glasgow Warriors

Munster 22 Glasgow Warriors 10
The wizardry and elusiveness of outside centre Keith Earls inspired Munster to jump to the top of the Guinness Pro12 league table at the official opening of the revamped Musgrave Park on Saturday night.

It left many afterwards wondering why the Limerick man is not playing for Ireland after his latest comeback man-of-the-match performance inspired the Reds to a bonus point win, bookmarking a near-perfect display with an audacious second-half try. Whether Earls breaks into the Ireland squad ahead of their visit to the Millennium Stadium on March 14 to face Wales is in Joe Schmidt’s hands, but, on the evidence of Saturday night’s performance, he should not be waiting too long for Ireland’s call.

Earls also drew effusive praise from Munster head coach, Anthony Foley, and his Scottish counterpart, Gregor Townsend.

“Keith Earls was outstanding, a real handful,” said Townsend. “Munster have some dangerous runners, particularly Earls. And guys like Keatley, Hanrahan and Conway pulled the strings.”

And Foley added: “It’s great we have him back fit and have him in our squad and it shows the strength in depth with Ireland that they don’t have him up there. Obviously Keith wants to play at the highest level and we appreciate that. Hopefully we can push him into Irish selection. With his form and what he’s doing he’s ticking a lot of boxes for a lot of people so hopefully we’ll see Keith in green but that’s somebody else’ call.”

While Earls provided the champagne moments of a hugely entertaining evening at a loud and atmospheric Musgrave Park, the synergy of the Munster backline must have pleased Foley and his backroom team. Ian Keatley hardly put a foot wrong in a commanding display alongside the excellent Duncan Williams; Denis Hurley continues to revel in the captain’s role at first centre, while up front John Ryan, Donncha O’Callaghan and Jack O’Donoghue were the pick of a cohesive forward unit that provided the platform off which the Munster backs fizzed with a creativity.

It might have been one of Munster’s finest performances of the season but it must be contextualised: Glasgow were minus 12 first choice players who were on Scotland duty (compared to Munster’s five) and started with a third choice out-half in Connor Braid and elusive Nikola Matawalu (nominally a scrum half) on the wing.

Munster dominated first half possession, Earls’ speed and game-breaking ability almost ending with tries in the 8th and 11th minutes, but option-taking proved his flaws on both counts. However the home side’s patience for a breakthrough did arrive with two tries in an eight minute spell handing Foley’s men a 12-0 interval lead. Keatley broke between two Glasgow defenders before offloading to Jack O’Donoghue who touched down in the 29th minute, and further territorial pressure from Munster saw Eusebio Guinazu break from a maul and dot down in the 37th minute.

Glasgow reshuffled their backs in the third quarter with Matawalu moving to scrum half, and his influence along with the work of Josh Strauss at no.8 began to trouble Munster. Braid converted a 53rd minute penalty before the latter offloaded beautifully to Rossouw de Klerk who burst through to score between the posts.

However, the evening’s best moment arrived in the 63rd minute with Earls’ try. It involved two great pieces of skill: First Keatley kicked low in behind the Glasgow defence, Earls sprinted into the space, and showed splendid footwork to chip the ball — Gaelic football-style — into his hands and dot down.

“That try was a sublime bit of skill,” beamed Foley afterwards. “It was worth the admission fee alone and proved a massive turning point and also gave us the jolt to go forward and get the fourth one.”

And it did arrive four minutes later off a close-in lineout maul that saw CJ Stander claim the try. Glasgow did push on to gain a losing bonus but Lee Jones’ effort near the Munster line was ruled out by the TMO.

For Foley the win gives Munster every impetus to drive on for home semi-final in the Pro12. “The win gives us confidence after losing over there and losing there in the semi-final last year and in Thomond.

“Tonight means a lot to the boys, a lot to the group. To get the bonus point and be outright leaders at this stage is a good achievement from the lads. But it doesn’t matter a jot unless you’re not there in May.”

MUNSTER: JJ Hanrahan; A Conway, K Earls, D Hurley (capt), R O’Mahony; I Keatley, D Williams; J Ryan, E Guinazu, BJ Botha; D O’Callaghan, B Holland; J O’Donoghue, S Dougall, CJ Stander.

Replacements: S Archer for Botha and A Smith for Conway (both 59); P Butler for O’Donoghue (61); D Kilcoyne for Ryan (64). N Cronin for Williams and I Dineen for Hurley (both 77); S Buckley for O’Callaghan (78).

GLASGOW WARRIORS: P Murchie; N Matawalu, R Vernon, F Lyle, DTH van der Merwe; C Braid, M McConnell; A Allan, P McArthur, R De Klerk; J Eddie, Al Kellock; A Ashe, W Bordill, J Strauss. Replacements used: D Hall, D’arcy Rae, A Toolis, T Spinks, G Bryce, L Jones, R Hughes.

Referee: N Owens (WRU).


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