Skin of their teeth victory sees Munster into semi-final spot

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Munster sneaked into the Guinness PRO14 semi-finals by the skin of their teeth in Limerick on Saturday as Benetton missed two late drop-goal attempts after a game performance in their historic first knockout game.

Munster’s Dave Kilcoyne dejected after conceding a try. Pic: ©INPHO/Dan Sheridan

Conversely, it was a display well below par from Johann van Graan’s Munster, who failed to score a try and needed the goal-kicking of Tyler Bleyendaal and then JJ Hanrahan to see them through to a last-four date against defending champions Leinster at Dublin’s RDS on May 18.

It was a cruel blow to the Treviso side, the first Italian team to reach the play-offs since they joined the 10 Celtic League teams in this competition in 2010-11. They made all the running and scored the only try of the game, through man of the match Iliesa Ratuva, just before half-time.

On a day when the sun shone and a low attendance of just 10,042 gave this fixture the feel of a pre-season friendly rather than a knockout game at the business end of the season, Benetton gave Munster reason to sit up and take notice with that converted Ratuva.

A tight opening period with few standout moments saw the scores level at 3-3 edging towards the interval, Tyler Bleyendaal kicking Munster into a 23rd-minute lead before fly-half counterpart Tommaso Allan tied the game two minutes later.

And it was the Italians who took the initiative just as the game was meandering towards half-time as left wing Monty Ioane took a quick throw on halfway and Benetton moved into the home 22, trucking it up initially before moving quickly wide to the right wing where opposing wing Iliesa Ratuva finished excellently, diving into the corner and grounding the ball in contact as Munster full-back Mike Haley’s tackle failed to prevent the score.

Skin of their teeth victory sees Munster into semi-final spot
Munster’s Chris Farrell is tackled. Pic: ©INPHO/Billy Stickland

Allan converted from the touchline and Munster were trailing 10-3 at the break, in serious need of a spark with their season in the balance.

Though Bleyendaal closed the gap with a penalty three minutes after the restart, the only fire lit was underneath Benetton, who twice came close to lengthening their lead with try opportunities, both wings, Ratuva and Ioane, causing havoc in the Munster defence but undone by a stray pass or offload. Their only reward was a 59th-minute penalty dispatched by Allan to send Benetton into a 13-6 lead.

To their credit, Munster stayed patient and having worked through their difficulties, used the boot to exploit Benetton indiscipline, replacement fly-half JJ Hanrahan kicking 62nd and 66th-minute penalties.

The home side were still trailing though, and yet to properly test the Italians’ defence while the visitors were making Munster protect their line as the clock ticked past 70 minutes.

With the ball in Munster’s 22 and the home crowd getting nervous, the Reds needed to dig deep but could not break out of their own half, their only relief coming from referee Nigel Owens’ whistle as Benetton’s poor discipline got the better of them, not least when scrum-half Tito Tebaldi cost his side 10 metres by carrying the ball away from a Munster penalty. Hanrahan went for goal from halfway with three-and-a-half minutes to play, a brave decision but the correct one as the ball sailed between the posts to edge Munster in front at last, 15-13.

There was more defending to do, though, as Benetton moved back into Munster territory, with replacement fly-half Antonio Rizzi staying back in the pocket and waiting for a drop-kick opportunity. When it came it looked good but hit an upright and bounced to safety, at least as far as Munster were concerned.

Still time for more drama, Hanrahan’s 22 drop-out finding a Benetton player and back the Italians went, the clock edging past 80 minutes and ful-back Jayden Hayward forced to attempt a drop goal from halfway. It had the legs but was well wide and the ball ran dead to end the game, to Munster’s great relief.

Skin of their teeth victory sees Munster into semi-final spot
Munster’s Jean Kleyn tackled by Benetton’s Marco Lazzaroni and Sebastian Negri. Pic: ©INPHO/Billy Stickland

    MUNSTER: M Haley; A Conway, C Farrell, R Scannell (D Goggin, 70), D Sweetnam; T Bleyendaal (JJ Hanrahan, 47), C Murray (A Mathewson, 66); D Kilcoyne (L O’Connor, 72), N Scannell (K O’Byrne, 72), S Archer (J Ryan, 50); J Kleyn, T Beirne (B Holland, 47); P O’Mahony – captain, C Cloete (A Botha, 62), CJ Stander.

BENETTON: J Hayward; R Tavuyara, M Zanon (A Sgarbi, 70), L Morisi, M Ioane; T Allan – captain (A Rizzi, 77), D Duvenage (T Tebaldi, 41-47 – blood); N Quaglio (D Appiah, 47), L Bigi (H Faiva, 47), M Riccioni (T Pasquali, 62); M Lazzaroni (I Herbst, 50), F Ruzza; S Negri (D Budd, 50), A Steyn, T Halafihi.

Referee: Nigel Owens (WRU)

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