Munster 31 Scarlets 15: Given the trials and tribulations of Munster’s season, there was more than a tinge of irony this five-try victory on the last day of an utterly frustrating campaign had no bearing on the Guinness Pro12 standings.
Yet, as the pressure valves were unscrewed at Thomond Park on Saturday and results in Swansea and Edinburgh went the province’s way while the season in Limerick, thanks to a wonky game clock, was extended by more than 10 minutes, there was a real sense that this was more than meaningful.
Losses for Ospreys and Edinburgh meant Munster would have been safe and secure in sixth place even if they had drawn a blank against Scarlets. Yet there was something about this group of players and the need for redemption after some pretty woeful performances over the past nine months that demanded a statement.
They needed to deliver Champions Cup rugby for next season by their own hand and though the performance was, by their own admission, far from perfect, the impact of this victory was telling.
A drop to the Challenge Cup has been avoided and for Munster’s season-long star of the show CJ Stander the ignominy of being the captain who failed to maintain an ever-present run in the top-flight of European rugby would not be his.
“I didn’t want to be that captain. It would have been a tough, tough year,” IRUPA players’ player of the year Stander said after collecting yet another Pro12 man of the match award for the latest try-scoring showcase of his leadership by example.
“We said at he beginning of the week that it was in our hands. Last week (against Edinburgh) it was cup rugby, we won that game. Today, we had to play for ourselves and the coaches because this was for our destiny next year.
“We didn’t want to have three or four months thinking about what you could have done better to win this match. The boys came out and I was proud of everyone. There were mistakes but it is how they dealt with it. All those boys like Johnny Holland and Rory Scannell playing with knocks, showing what the jersey means to them.”
Scarlets had plenty riding on this game too and their strong start, keeping Munster pegged in their own half for nearly all of the first quarter hour, showed they were more than capable of stealing fourth spot and grabbing a place in the play-off semi-finals.
Yet for once this season, it was Munster with the killer instinct, turning strength in defence into a clinical score as the impressive Jack O’Donoghue, on early for Tommy O’Donnell, forced a turnover in front of his posts, Conor Murray saw a chance on his left and sent the ball out to Francis Saili. With a two on one on his five-metre line, the All Black sent Keith Earls on his way with a diagonal grubber kick that bounced kindly for the Ireland wing who carried to halfway and returned the pass to the supporting Saili to race towards the line and send Munster into the lead against the run of play.
It added to the sense of what might have been, Saili’s breakaway casting minds back to Welford Road in the Champions Cup last December and a score that might have turned the season fate of head coach Anthony Foley on its head.
So too the driving mauls that have been so effective in the past fortnight as bonus-point tries have been engineered by a pack that had previously failed to provide a decent platform. This time, fittingly, it was Stander who delivered the blow, following on from scores by Rory Scannell and Ronan O’Mahony, who had also finished an excellent breakaway from halfway.
Stander’s try was the fourth of the day and confirmed on Munster’s own terms they would finish sixth by delivering the bonus point that was enough to separate them from the chasing pack.
A fifth and final try, Scannell’s second of the game and third in two matches, was a morale-boosting sign-off for the Thomond Park faithful, Johnny Holland ending the game with the conversion that closed the season on a high.
The players celebrated their victory and the accomplishment of their mission but they knew their objectives will have to be more ambitious than this when so demanding a taskmaster as Rassie Erasmus assumes control on July 1 as Munster’s first director of rugby.
Stander pointed to the three league defeats at home to Connacht, Leinster and Ospreys and the telling derby losses in Galway and Dublin last month that meant his side were scrambling for scraps rather than play-off places.
“It has been a disappointing season. Everyone knows that and it is not where Munster is supposed to be. It has been a tough year on the players and coaches, there has been a lot of pressure, particularly over the past few weeks.
“Everyone is delighted with the win. We know it is not acceptable to be where we are. But there was a lot of pressure and a lot of the boys are delighted with the win, and what we have done in the last few weeks going into the next season.
“We knew our destiny was in our hands and we worked hard in those weeks to show what we can do. It’s just disappointing we didn’t do that in the first stages of the season and then continuing on from that. Consistency was the thing they needed.
“You don’t want to be playing for sixth in a Munster jersey. There was some good stuff during the year and if we can bring all that together next season, we are going to have a good year. And that excites us. Even today, we showed parts of that. We scored a couple of 60 and 70 metres tries and we haven’t seen that all year. Hopefully, we can see more of it.”
S Zebo (I Keatley, 63); A Conway (R O’Mahony, 23-31 & 37), F Saili, R Scannell, K Earls; J Holland, C Murray (D Williams, 58); D Kilcoyne (J Cronin, 55), N Scannell (M Sherry, 2), S Archer (J Ryan, 70); D Foley (R Copeland, 61), B Holland; D O’Callaghan, T O’Donnell (J O’Donoghue, 8), CJ Stander - captain.
L Williams; G Owen, S Hughes, H Parkes, S Evans (A Thomas, 71); S Shingler, A Davies (G Davies, 52); R Evans (D Evans, 74), K Owens – captain (R Elias, 61), P Edwards (R Jones, 68); J Ball, D Bulbring (M Allen, 55); L Rawlins (T Price, 63), J Davies, J Barclay.
Nigel Owens (Wales).
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