RABO DIRECT PRO 12:
Glasgow 16 Munster 15
Munster’s season and Rob Penney’s tenure as head coach came to a frustrating end in Glasgow last night as the Irish province failed to prevent an in-form home team reaching their first RaboDirect Pro12 final at a raucous Scotstoun Stadium.
Munster won the try count 2-1 but the team that finished one place above them in the league over the regular season were for the most part the better team, more accurate and disciplined and too defensively savvy to allow Munster to break through for a game-winning try.
Warriors fly-half Finn Russell did the damage, hitting three first-half penalties after Munster had taken the lead with a Damien Varley try converted by Ian Keatley and then converting prop Gordon Reid’s try early in the second half to hand outgoing head coach Penney a third semi-final defeat in his two seasons at the province.
After a terrible performance and home defeat to a below-strength Ulster last week at Thomond Park, Munster needed a reaction and they got it despite after just 10 minutes. A breakdown penalty just inside Munster’s half was sent to the corner by Ian Keatley and the resulting lineout 10 metres out saw the ball reach centre James Downey who blasted up the middle to the line. Keith Earls helped recycle the ball and while he was getting caught up in a tussle under the posts with Alex Dunbar, Munster were moving the ball wide left, where the forwards took over, skipper Damien Varley crashing over.
Referee Marius Mitrea referred to his TMO and fellow Italian Carlo Damasco awarded the try. Keatley nailing the conversion, five metres in from the left touchline.
The score had come against the run of play in an opening half dominated by the home side, roared on by a spiky sellout 10,000 Glaswegian crowd well up for a first home semi-final hailed as the biggest game in the club’s professional history. The support buoyed in-form Glasgow, seeking their first final berth at the fourth attempt and enjoying the lions’ share of possession, their hustle and intent forcing Munster into tackle after tackle and reaping the reward with three penalties from fly-half Finn Russell that edged the home side into the lead a minute before the break.
It was no more than Munster deserved for despite the try, they looked disjointed, not helped by the early loss of Casey Laulala to a shoulder injury. By comparison with the previous week, it was a masterclass but while the error count was greatly reduced the tactical kicking was poor and half-backs Conor Murray and Keatley seemed to be on different pages.
And despite it all, Munster nearly had a second try to their name, the lineout once again providing the platform. Again the ball reached Downey before a crisp move saw CJ Stander combine with Felix Jones and then Sean Dougall, which carved an opening for the flanker to dart for the line. Recycled ball saw Keatley fling a diving pass to Zebo who crossed for what looked like a try, only for TMO Damasco to decide, after what seemed an eternity, to dismiss the claim.
And as Russell kicked Glasgow in front, Munster were further inconvenienced by the loss of full-back Jones to a head injury. With Earls already at 13 to make way for Laulala’s replacement Andrew Conway on the wing, JJ Hanrahan came into for Jones, taking over at fly-half as Keatley went to full-back.
The shuffling of the deck was bound to have an impact and a miscommunication between Earls and Downey in midfield was an ominous way to end the first half with Munster trailing 9-7.
Worse was to come when Glasgow substitute prop Gordon Reid piled over in the left corner on 46 minutes, Russell landing the conversion to open up a 16-7 home lead and as if to compound Munster woes, Hanrahan’s restart went out on the full.
And yet. Munster being Munster, they found a way back into the contest with an instant response, with Downey’s considerable midfield directness again producing dividends. Downey crashed it up, punching the hole, Munster recycled and Dougall got over the line with a lifeline try. Keatley’s conversion from the right of the posts failed to level the scores but he made it a one-point game in the 65th minute after Glasgow were penalised for not releasing in the tackle, the penalty making it 16-15 with 15 minutes to go.
It set up an enthralling final quarter-hour, Glasgow throwing on livewire scrum-half Niko Matawalu and forced to replace Scotland flanker Chris Fusaro with outside back Sean Lamont. They had the crowd behind them, though, the bit between their teeth and Munster were making crucial errors in possession, penalty here, a knock-on there.
And an intercept pass from Hanrahan on halfway after a sequence of frustrating lateral passing that needed Zebo to deny Sean Maitland the killer blow in the left corner.
Muster regained possession and once again failed to penetrate, going side to side in their own half as the clock ran down, before Conway was hustled into touch. It made for an ironic end to the Penney era.
GLASGOW: P Murchie; S Maitland, M Bennett (R Jackson, 65), A Dunbar, T Seymour; F Russell, C Cusiter (N Matawalu, 65); R Grant (G Reid, 26), D Hall (P MacArthur, 52), J Welsh (G Cross, 52); J Gray, A Kellock – captain (T Swinson, 57); R Harley, C Fusaro (S Lamont, 71), J Strauss (L Nakarawa, 30).
MUNSTER: F Jones (JJ Hanrahan, 37); K Earls, C Laulala (A Conway, 10), J Downey, S Zebo; I Keatley, C Murray; D Kilcoyne (J Cronin, 65), D Varley – captain, BJ Botha; D Foley (D O’Callaghan, 65), P O’Connell; CJ Stander, S Dougall (P Butler, 62), J Coughlan.
Referee: Marius Mitrea (Italy).
Felix Jones — 6
Thankfully no reprise of the brutal Florian Fritz incident, as a concussed-looking Jones was permanently removed from the fray. Before that, his knock-on ruined a good attack, but he made some big tackles.
Keith Earls — 7
In a game where everyone made monster hits, his stood out as he repeatedly drove much bigger men back from where they came. Used off his wing as first receiver to good effect too. Gave Glasgow their first three points for not rolling away.
Casey Laulala — 5
Lasted less than 10 minutes as a shoulder injury got the better of him. Before that, had looked sharp in defence with some tidy tackles and quick line speed.
James Downey — 9
Hard not to wonder if he’s been under-utilised during Penney’s tenure, after his powerful carries laid the platform for two tries. Aggressive midfield defence started with him — he blew Peter Murchie into next week with one hit.
Simon Zebo — 5
Too casual at times, notably when making a hash of retrieving a grubber before Keatley bailed him out and being badly beaten in the air by Maitland; was more alert to deny Seymour an intercept try late on. Had a try chalked off by the TMO, but it looked the right call.
Ian Keatley — 7
Mixed the sublime with the ridiculous, and ultimately a straightforward conversion he missed cost Munster dearly. Overcooked his first line kick but mixed and matched well thereafter, adding some balanced running into the mix too.
Conor Murray — 6
The tempo he sets when Munster have their tails up is hugely valuable to their gameplan, but didn’t see enough ball to have the impact he would have desired.
Dave Kilcoyne — 6
Ended honours even with Jon Welsh at scrum-time and produced a couple of big carries in the first half, but will rue a very careless knock-on when Munster needed momentum just after half-time.
Damien Varley — 7
Fine performance pockmarked by a try and two big turnover penalties. His cranky captaincy style when things go against his side — such as asking Mitrea to “ref it fairly” — doesn’t seem to endear him to referees.
BJ Botha — 6
Had one of those days where he couldn’t do anything right in the referee’s eyes, inside or outside the scrum. Was collared for three first-half penalties but made up for it with a bright showing in the loose.
David Foley — 7
Reprising the ‘dirty work at close quarters’ role made famous by Donncha O’Callaghan and continues to be a reliable lineout operator.
Paul O’Connell — 7
Could be seen co-ordinating Munster’s excellent defensive effort more often than not and as usual, never afraid to involve himself either. Will lament a missed tackle on Maitland but cleverly changed point of attack for Dougall’s try.
CJ Stander — 7
Not quite as conspicuous as his back-row colleagues but his strength in the tackle and one the deck was a vital asset in an extremely physical encounter. Didn’t see enough ball as Munster lived off scraps for long periods.
Sean Dougall — 9
He was everywhere. Made four tackles in the first five minutes and won a textbook turnover, as well as making one of the game’s few line-breaks. Great strength and body position to score a vital second-half try.
James Coughlan — 7
Not far behind Dougall in terms of workrate; the fervour he brings to everything he does in the physical exchanges is hugely important to Munster. Copybook blotted by a knock-on near his own line.
Andrew Conway (6). Never given room to use his pace but his kick-chase and backfield work was quite tidy. Could have gone lower on Reid to give himself a chance of preventing that try. JJ Hanrahan (5) had a bit of a stinker — one restart out on the full springs to mind — while Donncha O’Callaghan’s (5) late knock-on proved a vital one as it robbed Munster of the late momentum needed to turn things around.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved