EDINBURGH came up just short in this PRO14 semi-final, but, in their last game of the season, they gave further proof of just how far they have improved under Richard Cockerill. They made too many mistakes, and their inexperience showed at times against opponents who are far more accustomed to dealing with the big occasion. But the fact that they still got within four points of Munster despite those shortcomings is an indication of how well they played for so much of a tense contest at Thomond Park.
It is also an immensely promising omen for the future. If they had not coughed up so much ball, if they had kept their composure a little better at times, Edinburgh could well have won. Those flaws in their game can be minimised through a combination of hard work and experience, and they will continue to grow in self-belief as their head coach proves to them how good they can be given the right attitude.
It may be too early to say that Munster are past their best, but, just as Gregor Townsend said that his Scotland side were several years behind Ireland in their evolution, so there is no denying that Munster are considerably more mature than their Scottish opponents. If both teams continue on their present trajectories, it is entirely possible that Edinburgh will soon overtake the former European champions.
Cockerill was forced into a late change before the game, bringing Lewis Carmichael into the back row to replace the injured Jamie Ritchie, with Ally Miller moving on to the bench. The alteration did not have a disruptive effect, as Edinburgh had the better of the first half in the loose, where Duhan van der Merwe, Blair Kinghorn and Bill Mata made substantial ground on virtually every carry.
They might have had the edge on the scoreboard too, but for a couple of costly errors. The first, a lineout overthrow from Stuart McInally, allowed Rhys Marshall to simply gather the ball and crash over from around 10 metres out, with JJ Hanrahan adding the two points. The second came minutes later as the visitors had a chance to hit back immediately thanks to a break by Mark Bennett, only to spill the ball within the Munster five-metre line.
The Irish team were by no means at their most commanding, however, and coughed up a couple of penalties midway through the half through James Cronin. Sam Hidalgo-Clyne was on target with both, JJ Hanrahan then missed a penalty after Edinburgh were ruled to have pulled down a scrum, and half-time came with just a single point in it.
Munster come out fighting
That changed within three minutes of the restart, however, as Munster began the second half far more assertively. With Nigel Owens playing penalty advantage to the home side, Edinburgh appeared to lose concentration as Simon Zebo did the damage with a little dink ahead, then floated out a long pass for Keith Earls to score in the right corner. Hanrahan’s conversion ensured that the visitors paid the full price for their inattentiveness, then after 50 minutes the stand-off added a penalty after Jaco van der Walt had strayed offside.
From being right in the fight, Edinburgh were struggling to keep so much as a toehold in the contest. After 55 minutes, Hidalgo-Clyne pulled back three points with his third penalty – which, it transpired, was the last act of the Scarlets-bound scrum-half in an Edinburgh jersey, as he was immediately replaced by Nathan Fowles.
The substitute soon made a dramatic intervention, getting up in support of a Kinghorn break to grab his team’s first try with a 30m burst. Van der Walt added the conversion, and we were back to a one-point game as the final quarter began.
Edinburgh continued to play their way into good position, notably through a break by Ben Toolis, but too often they tried to force the game. Munster, on the other hand, maintained their composure well, and after 73 minutes stretched their advantage to four points through a second Hanrahan penalty.
Edinburgh fought to the end in search of the score that would give them a famous victory, and were deep inside the Munster half in the last play of the game after Duncan Weir sent a penalty to touch. But Munster intercepted the throw, and Conor Murray carried it into touch to put his team into a semi-final against Leinster.
Defeat naturally brought with it disappointment, but not dejection. If there were regrets about the missed opportunities, there was also surely a sense of pride at having come so close.
Munster: S Zebo; A Conway, S Arnold, R Scannell, K Earls; J Hanrahan, C Murray; J Cronin, R Marshall, S Archer, J Kleyn, W Holland, P O’Mahony, J O’Donoghue, C Stander. Substitutes: M Sherry, D Kilcoyne, C Parker, G Grobler, R Copeland, J Hart, I Keatley, D Sweetnam.
Edinburgh: B Kinghorn; D Fife, M Bennett, C Dean, D van der Merwe; J van der Walt, S Hidalgo-Clyne; J Lay, S McInally, S Berghan, B Toolis, G Gilchrist, L Carmichael, M Bradbury, W Mata. Substitutes: N Cochrane, A Dell, W Nel, A Miller, C du Preez, N Fowles, D Weir, J Johnstone.
Munster: Tries: Marshall, Earls. Cons: Hanrahan 2. Pens: Hanrahan 2.
Edinburgh: Try: Fowles. Con: Van der Walt. Pens: Hidalgo-Clyne 3.
Scoring sequence: 5-0, 7-0, 7-3, 7-6 half-time, 12-6, 14-6, 17-6, 17-9, 17-14, 17-16, 20-16.
Referee: N Owens (Wales).