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Munster must persist with Ian Keatley in PRO12 final in Belfast

By Tony Ward

They say a league table never lies and certainly the closeness of both Guinness PRO12 semi-finals bore that out. In the end, for Glasgow and for Munster, home comforts told.

If Glasgow left it close against Ulster - the last kick of the game - then Munster left it even closer again given the nature of the disallowed try which appeared to have slipped the Ospreys into the Kingspan finale at the death.

In truth, both semi-finals could have gone either way and yet? Perhaps the Ulster and Ospreys faithful might argue otherwise but I felt in both cases justice was done with the best two teams over the course of the 23-match marathon to date making it to the Belfast showdown.

Despite losing out in last year's final, the Warriors have provided the most scintillating winning rugby of any side bar none. They still, however, have a massive psychological barrier to overcome at the Kingspan.

For their opponents it is a different prerogative. Apart from looking like Paul O'Connell's final game in Munster red, opportunity knocks to create a new winning era for the province under Anthony Foley.

They are still some way from the finished article but factor in the new signings and a squad in transition could be ready to move on to the next stage as genuine Champions Cup challengers.

There was, however, one very big difference between the route taken by the best of Scottish and best of Irish to Saturday's domestic final.

Whereas Glasgow won theirs at the death, Munster almost did the complete reverse. And therein lies the biggest concern and frustration in this new squad's development and it relates directly to closing games out.

For sure, had Ian Keatley been in half decent goalkicking form, the result would have been done and dusted long before the end. He had a shocker in that key respect but despite the clamour for JJ Hanrahan or indeed Tyler Bleyendaal to wear 10 on Saturday, it is Keatley who should be given the nod in Belfast.

He can blow hot and cold and certainly on current form has dropped to at least three in the national out-half pecking order behind Jonny Sexton and Paddy Jackson.

That said, were the call mine, I would declare Keatley my game manager early in the week. Keatley wasn't alone in almost opening the Thomond trapdoor. The inability to put the opposition away, the Munster way, is something yet to be fully mastered by this still developing squad.

However, both props - Dave Kilcoyne and Stephen Archer - were immense against Ospreys. So too the back row of Peter O'Mahony, Paddy Butler and man of the match CJ Stander. Duncan Williams too did well when replacing Conor Murray just a quarter of an hour in.

All told, it made for the deserved outcome although Steve Tandy might not agree. We will deal with what lies ahead later in the week but even if it is by the skin of their teeth, both finalists are there on marathon merit rather than any sprint finish.

But if there has been a more riveting rugby match played anywhere this year than that witnessed at Kingsholm on Sunday then it must have been something else. To David Humphreys' Gloucester, a place in the final play-off for Champions Cup qualification but to Pat Lam and Connacht the lion's share of the glory for a match of quality rugby that will live long in the memory.

Professionally, that will offer little consolation and yet there were so many positives from a display of such substance. A little like Munster, they have still to learn to close a game out although at least at this time of asking they managed to hit the ground running a lot earlier than recent times past.

In specific terms, and have little doubt Joe Schmidt has been taking note, John Cooney, Jack Carty (absolutely outstanding), Robbie Henshaw, Tiernan O'Halloran and Matt Healy were on fire. All are backs and home produced, even if Cooney and Healy come from the East. The pack too was on song with John Muldoon as ever the catalyst leading from the front.

In the final analysis, poor refereeing again let them down particularly the penalty awarded to Gloucester leading to the equalising try. A harsh lesson in a performance that even in defeat did Irish rugby proud.

Belfast Telegraph


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