Departing Zebo sends Munster into semifinals
PRO14 REPORT: Simon Zebo marked his final appearance at Thomond Park in style, creating the crucial try as Munster set up a mouth-watering semifinal showdown with Leinster by edging past Edinburgh 20-16.
The first-ever Pro14 semifinal qualifier went down to the wire but the Irish side held off their Scottish visitors to book a visit to the RDS Arena in a fortnight's time.
Rhys Marshall pinched an overthrown line-out and crashed over early on to put Munster ahead and although a pair of Sam Hidalgo-Clyne penalties kept Edinburgh in touch, Zebo's audacious chip and mammoth pass put Ireland team-mate Keith Earls over in the corner.
From 17-6 down, replacement scrum-half Nathan Fowles' sniping try got the Scots back in contention but a penalty gave Munster some breathing space and they repelled late pressure to keep their quest for a first title since the 2010/11 season on track.
After a cagey opening, it was Munster who struck first in the Limerick sunshine on eight minutes.
JJ Hanrahan powered a kick to touch deep in the Edinburgh 22 and Scotland hooker Stuart McInally overthrew the line-out, allowing opposite number Marshall to catch the ball, barrel through a couple of tackles and reach out to dot down.
The Irish province is the worst in the Guinness PRO14 from the kicking tee – sporting just a 68 percent success rate – but Hanrahan nailed the conversion from out wide to extend the advantage to 7-0.
Falling behind seemed to spark Edinburgh into life as DTH van der Merwe and Mark Bennett sliced through the home defence and got their side within five metres of the line, before a knock-on under the posts saw the opportunity squandered.
A pair of Hidalgo-Clyne penalties – the second after James Cronin was pinged for putting his hands in the ruck – narrowed the gap to 7-6, while Hanrahan failed to take advantage of the Munster pack earning a 27th-minute scrum penalty as his kick drifted wide.
With exciting full-back Blair Kinghorn dancing past Munster defenders at will, Edinburgh were dominating and looked a threat to score every time they attacked but the hosts held on to reach half-time with a one-point lead.
And early in the second period, they extended that advantage in style. Zebo – on his final appearance at Thomond Park before departing for Racing 92 in the summer – seized upon a loose ball, dinked ahead and collected his own chip before producing a raking pass to Earls on the left touchline, where the speedster turned on the jets to dot down in the corner; Hanrahan again slotting the tricky conversion.
Munster was beginning to dominate at the breakdown and when Jaco van der Walt was caught on the wrong side, Hanrahan increased the lead to 17-6 from the tee.
A Hidalgo-Clyne three-pointer, his final action before being replaced by Fowles, shortly after kept Edinburgh in touch and Fowles showed his nose for the try-line with 20 minutes remaining to get the visitors right back into the contest.
Firstly Viliame Mata, then Kinghorn made big gains before the scrumhalf sniped off the base of the ruck and held off the chasing defender to slide over.
It was a different kicker but the same result as van der Walt bisected the uprights to close the gap to a single point and set up an enthralling final quarter.
A 72nd-minute Hanrahan penalty gave the hosts slightly more of a cushion at 20-16 and they held off late pressure to seal a Semi-Final with old rivals Leinster.
Tries: Marshall, Earls
Cons: Hanrahan 2
Pens: Hanrahan 2
Con: Van der Walt
Pens: Hidalgo-Clyne 3
Munster: 15 Simon Zebo, 14 Andrew Conway, 13 Sammy Arnold, 12 Rory Scannell, 11 Keith Earls, 10 Hanrahan, 9 Conor Murray,8 Christiaan Stander, 7 Jack O'Donoghue, 6 Peter O'Mahony (captain), 5 Billy Holland, 4 Jean Kleyn, 3 Stephen Archer, 2 Rhys Marshall, 1 James Cronin.
Replacement: 16 Mike Sherry, 17 Dave Kilcoyne, 18 Ciaran Parker, 19 Gerbrandt Grobler, 20 Robin Copeland, 21 James Hart, 22 Ian Keatley, 23 Darren Sweetnam.
Edinburgh: 15 Blair Kinghorn, 14 Dougie Fife, 13 Mark Bennett, 12 Chris Dean, 11 Duhan van der Merwe, 10 Jaco van der Walt, 9 Sam Hidalgo-Clyne, 8 Bill Mata, 7 Jamie Ritchie, 6 Magnus Bradbury, 5 Grant Gilchrist, 4 Ben Toolis, 3 Simon Berghan, 2 Stuart McInally (captain), 1 Jordan Lay.
Replacements: 16 Neil Cochrane, 17 Allan Dell, 18 Willem Nel, 19 Lewis Carmichael, 20 Cornell du Preez, 21 Nathan Fowles, 22 Duncan Weir. 23 James Johnstone.
Referee: Nigel Owens
Assistant Referees: Ben Whitehouse, Ian Davies
TMO: Jon Mason