Ryan Bailey reports from Thomond Park
IT WAS FAR from perfect, and by no means vintage Munster, but Johann van Graan’s side were able to delve into their deep reservoir of knockout rugby experience to progress through to a fourth Pro14 semi-final in five years.
The substandard performance will again raise concerns over Munster’s attack, as they failed to convert a number of first-half opportunities, but they survived a close call to set up an inter-pro showdown against Leinster at the RDS.
Peter O’Mahony after today’s game. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO
Benetton were desperately unlucky not to record a first-ever win in Limerick but they, too, were left to rue three spurned chances in the red zone, as JJ Hanrahan’s long-range penalty sealed a 15-13 win for Johann van Graan’s side.
A last-gasp defeat was a cruel outcome for the visitors, who had performed brilliantly on their first appearance in the play-offs, pushing Munster all the way thanks to a controlling display from out-half Tommaso Allan and their man-of-the-match Iliesa Ratuva Tavuyara.
But Munster’s big-game nous and tenacity told, with John Ryan and CJ Stander producing season-saving turnovers with their Pro14 hopes on the line, before Hanrahan stepped up to land his third penalty from halfway.
“It was a difficult game,” Peter O’Mahony said afterwards. “Benetton have been one of the in-form teams of the Pro14 this year. It’s not the first time they’ve come to Ireland and put in a serious performance, they’ve drawn twice against Leinster and Ulster.
“You see with the Italian team, how much they’re improving and they’ve a chunk of players from that team. We didn’t expect anything other than an incredible test match today and they certainly didn’t disappoint.”
Although enjoying large tracts of possession and territory in the first half, Munster were left frustrated by their lack of cutting edge, with Tyler Bleyendaal’s penalty the only points they had to show for their efforts at the break.
At the other end, Benetton — having soaked up the pressure — caused huge problems and through captain Allan, Monty Ioane, Tavuyara and fullback Jayden Hayward had willing and able match-winners in their ranks.
“We certainly weren’t clinical enough in the first half, they took their chances incredibly well and have some seriously dangerous players, particularly on breaking ball,” O’Mahony continued.
“A couple of times we were attacking and all of a sudden we were on our try-line. Their two wingers and their number eight are tough men to tackle.
“We can certainly make huge improvements, but we were under huge pressure. Poor skill execution, and poor decision-making at times when we offloaded. We put ourselves in some great positions, we need to learn to be a little more patient at times and maybe play a phase or two.
“But I thought they defended very well, they scrambled well. They’re a hungry side and you could see it the way they got back and defended the line.”
Hanrahan lands the winning kick. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO
After going 13-6 behind early in the second period, Munster’s bench — and Hanrahan, in particular — provided a big impact, bringing renewed energy and endeavour to the contest, played in front of just 10,042 at Thomond.
The replacement out-half kicked nine second-half points, including the winning score in the 76th minute, to keep Munster’s season alive and maintain their unbeaten home record this term.
“It’s knockout rugby, the only thing that matters is we won,” van Graan said. “Credit to the lads for keeping them out at the end there and credit to JJ for getting that kick.
“There is real fight and belief in this team, the players that came on helped us through that last 10 minutes. We’ll look at ourselves as a group, and why we didn’t perform in terms of our execution.”
The southern province now have two weeks to prepare for their trip to Dublin, in what is a repeat of last year’s semi-final.
“Leinster are a fantastic side, we got there last season as well and they’ve a Champions Cup final coming up,” the Munster coach added. “Good luck to them in that, but we’ll take our time and prepare well.”
They’ll need to be much, much better on 18 May.
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