Munster have reached the final of the Guinness Pro12 following a clinical victory over Ospreys at Thomond Park on Saturday night. The southern province ensured it didn’t go the way of Leinster the previous night and bow out of the four-nation competition at the second last hurdle.
In a tight first half Munster withstood a lot of pressure from the visiting Ospreys, who had lost Rhys Webb prior to kick-off when failing a fitness test, and were unable to break down the Welsh outfit. Dan Biggar had put his side ahead after just 7 minutes when he scored a penalty awarded for an Andrew Conway infringement. The visitors had an opportunity to add to their lead in the 11th minute when the departing Munster centre Francis Saili was penalised when he cleared Dan Biggar out of his way as the Welsh kicker obstructed him. The referee, Luke Pearce, checked the incident on the big screen in the stadium and adjudged Saili to have tackled a man without the ball.
RFU referee Pearce, officiating in just his second Guinness Pro12 game, didn’t endear himself much to the home fans as his whistle-happy performance in the opening ten minutes frustrated both the Munster players and fans alike. The Ospreys tactic of delaying the throw in, and the referee continuing to allow it, added to the frustration of the 18,332 fans present, a record attendance for a Guinness Pro12 semi-final at Thomond Park.
Francis Saili, who has very active in the opening quarter of the game and put in a man of the match performance, scored an opening try for Munster after 25 minutes. The usually reliable Tyler Bleyendaal, however, missed the conversion as the ball hit the upright, leaving just 2 points between the sides: Munster 5 Ospreys 3.
A high tackle by Andrew Conway soon gave Ospreys kicker Biggar another shot at goal only for the Welshman to see his penalty kick go right and wide of the posts. A successful Tyler Bleyendaal penalty kick on the stroke of half time put Munster 8-3 ahead in a game that had only seen three scores in the first 40 minutes of action.
New Zealander Bleyendaal became more active in the second half as he began to take more control of the game. Despite the early second half dominance, Munster failed to keep the scoreboard ticking over. Ospreys then began to grow in confidence during the third quarter of the game as the home side conceded a number of penalties.
On 61 minutes, a block down from Bleyendaal saw the ball fortuitously knocked to Conor Murray. Keith Earls received the pass and charged forward. CJ Stander then took control to make further metres and looked to have reached the line to score. Referee Pearce decided the ball was held up on examination of the incident on the big screen and following consultation with the TMO.
A Munster scrum ensued but was soon poorly turned over and kicked down the field. Earls picked up the ball near the Munster 22 and a beautiful interchange of play between the Limerick man, Saili, Conway, and then Murray, saw the men in red gain about 50 metres before Simon Zebo touched down for the five-pointer left of the posts. Tyler Bleyendaal converted to extend the home team’s lead to 15-3. This try and conversion, as well as the various changes of personnel on the field, seemed to take much of the steam out of the game.
Four minutes later, Tyler Bleyendaal opted to kick for the posts when awarded a penalty on the Ospreys 10m line. The successful kick saw Munster extend their lead to 18-3, and effectively kill off the Ospreys’ challenge.
With 10 minutes remaining in the game, Ospreys’ Scott Otten thought he had reduced the deficit when he kicked the ball forward, chased it down, beating four Munster men in the process, to touch down for a try. The video evidence showed the ball had been knocked on before the touchdown and as a result the effort was disallowed.
Munster would soon have a third try when winger Andrew Conway scored in the corner. Even though Bleyendaal missed a difficult conversion kick from the touchline in front of the East Stand, Munster were out of sight at this stage, on a 23-3 score line.
Keelan Giles thought he had scored the Ospreys only try of the game in the last minute when he jumped over Francis Saili to touch the ball down, only for the TV footage to show he had put a foot in touch.
In what was a final home game for Racing-bound Donnacha Ryan and Francis Saili, who may move to England for next season, many of fans remained behind after the final whistle to pay tribute to the departing players. The failure of the IRFU to offer Ryan, a faithful servant to Munster and Irish rugby, a central contract for next season has been heavily criticised in many quarters.
Final score: Munster 23 Ospreys 3.