MUNSTER exacted clinical revenge on Edinburgh for their opening Heineken Cup defeat and cruised to a home quarter-final with a six-try demolition of the bedraggled Scots.
Scorers: Munster: Tries: Coughlan, Murphy, Murray, O’Mahony, Zebo, Jones. Cons: Keatley 4. Edinburgh: Pens: Laidlaw 2.
The home side, backed by their renowned army of 26,000 red-shirted supporters, got off to a flying start, but Edinburgh worked tirelessly in defence in the first half to stem the tide and headed inside just 12-6 behind. But they lost flanker Cornell du Preez on the stroke of half-time to a controversial television match official (TMO) decision, and Munster took full advantage to storm into a 19-6 lead straight after the break, from where they sailed on the Thomond wings to a commanding victory.
Their pack, led superbly by captain Peter O’Mahony and the indefatigable talisman Paul O’Connell, dominated key spells in the set-piece, and their Kiwi coach Rob Penney’s development of more expansive back play was evident in the way his side shredded a wilting Edinburgh defence.
The visitors arrived in Limerick hoping for a win that would have earned a place in the Amlin Challenge Cup quarter-finals, and they opened the scoring, captain Greig Laidlaw kicking a penalty at the second time of asking. But Munster’s response was swift. O’Connell claimed the restart kick and Munster ran the ball through quick phases on the 22 that eventually released No 8 James Coughlan on an angled run to the line through a barn-door space in the visitors’ left flank. Ian Keatley’s conversion attempt came back off the bar, but the score sparked a period of strong Munster pressure.
A sign of their intent to secure a home quarter-final tie by sealing maximum points came as early as the 16th minute when, after a fine scrum popped Edinburgh tighthead prop Willem Nel, and they kicked the resultant penalty from inside the 22 to touch.
As The Fields of Athenry rang out around a packed Thomond Park, O’Connell rumbled around the front of the lineout and the Lions lock battered to within a metre twice more as Munster laid siege to the visitors’ line. Another penalty ensued in front of the posts, this time for offside, and Munster opted for a scrum. It went down, free-kick to Munster, scrum again, drive and up popped both front rows. Penalty to Munster.
Again they took the scrum, and this time it provided the platform for a training ground move which allowed wing Johne Murphy to expose a bizarre space behind the Edinburgh scrum to race through and behind the posts without a hand being laid on him. Keatley’s conversion took the hosts 12-5 ahead with 22 minutes played, and the red sea of Munster support seemed in danger of engulfing the Scottish team.
However, Edinburgh’s spirit reared up and a fine tackle by Dougie Fife on his opposite number, Keith Earls, on halfway forced a retiral for the British and Irish Lions winger, and the appearance off the bench of another, in Simon Zebo. Another penalty was awarded to Edinburgh, which Laidlaw goaled from wide on the left, cutting the deficit back to 12-6 after 27 minutes.
The momentum had swung to the point that Edinburgh were now edging the scrum, and a penalty against the Munster front row began a ten-minute period in the Munster half in which Edinburgh built attacks patiently. At one stage it looked as if Laidlaw had got over the line, but he was held tight inches short by O’Connell. A crucial moment. Knock-ons by fly-half Greig Tonks and David Denton – the No 8 was a leading performer – then let Munster off the hook.
The half finished with Edinburgh reduced to 14 men, arguably due to the “Thomond effect”, and there was no doubting how influential this proved on the game. Referee Wayne Barnes and his assistant were unaware of anything untoward when Laidlaw kicked the ball out with the clock showing 40 minutes, but there had been a roar from the East Stand – the stadium was full for the first time in two seasons – and Munster players complained vociferously as local hero O’Connell was left holding his arm.
Employing the new rules of television analysis, Barnes called for replays from the TMO and was told that visiting flanker du Preez had been reckless in driving into the ruck when O’Connell was pinned at its heart holding the ball and duly showed him a yellow card.
It was a tough call and a big blow to the visitors as not only had Edinburgh recovered well from their nervy first quarter, but Du Preez had been a key figure in that, with his incredible work-rate in defence and attack. O’Connell continued with no ill-effects.
Munster exploited the man advantage on the restart by running through phases to stretch the Edinburgh defence, which helped with some slipshod tackling, cheap turnovers and penalty infringements. Impressive flanker Tommy O’Donnell broke 20 metres to the 22, and though stopped by Roddy Grant, waves of pressure then ended with scrum-half Conor Murray diving over from a ruck.
Full-back Jack Cuthbert worked hard to stem the tide as Munster twice kicked and chased, and, with Du Preez back, a fine scrum and lineout took the Scots out of their half. But a lost lineout and a clever kick through brought the red jerseys swarming back into the 22, and home skipper Peter O’Mahony drove over for the fourth try and bonus point with 23 minutes of the game remaining.
At 26-6 there was no way back for Edinburgh, and coach Alan Solomons handed game-time to the half-backs he will need through the Six Nations, Grayson Hart and Carl Bezuidenhout respectively, and gave an early rest to Laidlaw and Tonks, who could yet prove to be Scotland’s nine and ten combination.
The ever-threatening Zebo marked his return by finishing off another concerted attack with a close-range try 15 minutes from the end. Edinburgh prop Geoff Cross was then yellow-carded 14 minutes after coming on, deemed the culprit in bringing down a Munster maul close to the line, and home full-back Felix Jones rounded off the scoring with a sixth try after Edinburgh had succeeded in halting the forwards, only for Munster to move it wide.
There is no doubting the burgeoning quality of this newly-shaped Munster side, and the reality is that Edinburgh are some way off this cohesive, confident quality, but this was the kind of tame surrender of which Edinburgh supporters had hoped they had seen the last.
Munster: F Jones; K Earls, C Laulala, J Downey, J Murphy; I Keatley, C Murray; D Kilcoyne, D Varley, S Archer, D Foley, P O’Connell, P O’Mahony (capt), T O’Donnell, J Coughlan. Subs: S Zebo for Earls 24mins, JJ Hanrahan for Downey 53, J Cronin for Kilcoyne 60, D O’Callaghan for O’Connell, P Butler for O’Mahony, D Casey for Varley, all 66, D Williams for Murray 69.
Edinburgh: J Cuthbert; D Fife, N de Luca, B Atiga, T Brown; G Tonks, G Laidlaw (capt); A Dickinson, R Ford, W Nel, G Gilchrist, I van der Westhuizen, C du Preez, R Grant, D Denton. Subs: O Atkins for Van der Westhuizen 49mins, C Bezuidenhout for Cuthbert, 49-57, J Dominguez for Atiga 53, T Leonardi for Grant 56, G Hart for Laidlaw, C Bezuidenhout for Tonks, G Cross for Nel, all 60, L Blaauw for Dickinson 66.
THE SCOTSMAN RUGBY SHOW IN ASSOCIATION WITH GINGER GROUSE