STUART BATHGATE @ Murrayfield
THE superior experience of the Munster defence and some incisive finishing from Keith Earls killed Edinburgh’s dream of a place in the last four of the Champions Cup, but only after a dramatic tussle in which they twice took the lead – once in each half. Earls’ two tries bookended the match, while Chris Dean got Edinburgh’s only five-point score. There was little between the teams, and there is no doubt that Richard Cockerill’s team continue to get closer to winning such ties, but nor was there any doubt that Munster deserved to win.
They were calmer when it mattered most, dealing particularly well with a first-half sinbinning for Tadgh Beirne, and they were more able to control the tempo too. Edinburgh showed remarkable fight first to come back from an early deficit and then to take the lead, but they also displayed naivety at times too, notably when a barge by Pierre Schoeman on Beirne led to a penalty reverse – one which eventually produced Earls’ second score.
Edinburgh gave an early indication of their attacking intent by sending their first two penalties to touch, but on both occasions the Munster defence held firm, eventually clearing their lines when they were awarded a penalty of their own. The decision not to go for a goal was a high-risk one in a contest which seemed sure to be close, but it was repeated again when a counter-attack ended with Beirne being sinbinned for killing the ball. The resolution was also the same: seven or eight phases that came ever closer to the posts, ended when the visitors were awarded a penalty.
Munster had barely featured as an attacking force in the first quarter-hour, but that changed dramatically when a Garryowen was carried over by Edinburgh to produce a scrum five. That in turn produced a penalty when Henry Pyrgos deliberately knocked on, and Keith reacted fastest, taking a quick tap and racing in to score, with Joey Carbery converting.
Pyrgos’s offence looked plain enough, but the referee’s failure to penalise Conor Murray for upending his opposite number off the ball was not so readily explicable. Even so, the upshot was a seven-point lead and a massive morale-boost to the team with 14 men, and it was a particularly heartening start for Munster given they had been forced into a change in the hours before kick-off when full-back Mike Haley dropped out because of illness. Andrew Conway moved from 14 to 15 and Darren Sweetnam came in on the right wing, and the back line showed no sign of being disrupted by the alteration.
The visitors were further encouraged when Beirne returned seconds after the conversion, but Edinburgh were soon level after a move in which the recycling was notably slicker than it had been. Darcy Graham made vital ground after initially being held in the tackle, and with the defence on the back foot through several phases, Chris Dean eventually finished off from a few metres out, with Jaco van der Walt converting.
Graham was then taken out in the air by Conway after fielding a high ball, who was lucky not to be shown a card. Edinburgh were soon back on the attack as the half entered its last five minutes, and this time when they got a penalty in the opposition 22 they rightly opted to go for goal, with Van der Walt putting them into the lead for the first time.
Carbery, who had been carrying an injury since the opening minutes, was replaced by Tyler Bleyendaal just after that score, and Munster had to make another change in the last minute of the half when Jack O’Donoghue failed an HIA and was replaced by Arno Botha. Half-time gave them the chance to regroup, they began the second 40 on top, and they drew level six minutes in when Bleyendaal was on the mark with a conceded by Bill Mata.
Edinburgh were soon back in front through a second Van der Walt penalty after Conway had held on to the ball on the ground, and although they were under heavy pressure for some time after that, a powerful defensive scrum yielded a penalty. Cockerill then made his first changes, bringing on Magnus Bradbury and Simon Berghan, and the double switch gave his team fresh impetus as the match went into the final quarter.
It was Munster who got the next score, however – and, as it turned out, the last score. A penalty conceded by Schoeman – after Edinburgh were due one for an offence on Van der Walt – set up good field position for the Irishmen, and then from the back of a scrum Murray and Bleyendaal combined well to spark a fine backs move that ended with Earls scoring his second try in the right corner. The stand-off converted, and with 10 minutes to go Edinburgh had it all to do.
They had an abundance of possession as they went in search of the winning score, but they were up against a galvanised defence which drew on every bit of its experience to stand firm. One final attack lasted 30 phases or more, but only for two or three did Edinburgh ever get close to the Munster 22. So near and yet so far.
Teams – Edinburgh: D Graham; D Hoyland, J Johnstone (M Bennett 69), C Dean, D van der Merwe; J van der Walt, H Pyrgos (C Shiel 77); P Schoeman (A Dell 77), S McInally (R Ford 77), W Nel (S Berghan 58), B Toolis, G Gilchrist, J Barclay (M Bradbury 58), H Watson (J Ritchie 72), V Mata.
Munster: A Conway; D Sweetenham, C Farrell, R Scannell (D Goggin 76), K Earls; J Carbery (T Bleyendaal 36), C Murray; D Kilcoyne (J Loughman 62), N Scannell (R Marshall 65), J Ryan (S Archer 58), J Kleyn (W Holland 60), T Beirne, P O’Mahony (capt), J O’Donoghue (A Botha 39), C Stander.
Scorers: Edinburgh: Try: Dean. Con: Van der Walt. Pens: Van der Walt 2.
Munster: Tries: Earls 2. Cons: Carbery, Bleyendaal. Pen: Bleyendaal.
Scoring sequence (Edinburgh first): 0-5, 0-7, 5-7, 7-7, 10-7 half-time, 10-10, 13-10, 13-15, 13-17.
Yellow card: Beirne (Munster) 11-21 mins.
Referee: Pascal Gauzere (France).