That Munster are a team in transition was clear to see here in the east end of the Scottish capital today. Whether they are a side in the knockout stages of the Heineken Cup is something hanging tantalisingly in the balance after their failure to put Edinburgh fully to the sword.
The Scots were the swashbuckling surprise package of the season last term, running in a bucketful of tries and racking up the scalps en route to the semi-finals. Twelve months on, Michael Bradley's men have yet to get a point in their pool after five rounds. They were there for the bonus point taking yesterday but the Munster of 2013 are not the clinical Munster of old.
They were never in danger of failing to gain the victory they required to reach the final weekend still in the hunt for a quarter-final spot but they are now joint third in line for one of the two best pool runner-up qualifying places – level on 15 points with Leinster, behind Montpellier (18) and Leicester (16). They paid the price for affording Edinburgh too much respect in the first half and could only manage two of the four tries they needed after the interval for what would have been a vital bonus point.
As it is, the two-time champions have Racing Metro at home next Sunday, a day after Leinster travel to Munster. "I suspect we'll need a bonus-point win," Rob Penney, Munster's Kiwi head coach, said. "Any team coming to Thomond Park is going to be in for a battle. It should be a really exciting Sunday afternoon with so much at stake in the one fixture."
Whether Ronan O'Gara will be free to join in the excitement remains to be seen. The veteran outside-half escaped punishment for an off-the-ball tussle with Edinburgh lock Sean Cox but a citing could yet deprive Penney of the services of the Munster points machine for next Sunday's decider.
It did not take O'Gara long to get the scoreboard ticking yesterday, on the occasion of his 108th appearance in the continent's premier club competition. With two minutes on the clock, the 35-year-old launched a centimetre-perfect Garryowen than had Greig Tonks, the home full-back, pinned to the floor and Edinburgh conceding a penalty at the ruck.
O'Gara landed the three points and followed up with a kick to the right corner that earned Munster a prime attacking platform. Still, hooker Damien Varley failed to find Donncha O'Callaghan with his throw to the back of the line-out and the chance went begging.
A similar mess up from a defensive line-out put Munster under pressure, Edinburgh No 8 Dave Denton almost barging his way through for a try. There was also a penalty miss from O'Gara as the contest ticked into the second quarter with Munster just the three points ahead.
The stand-off made amends with a second penalty success in the 25th minute, but as half time loomed the visitors were under increasing pressure to get a try on the board.
There were groans of surprise and disappointment from the Irish contingent in the crowd when Munster captain Doug Howlett instructed O'Gara to go for the posts rather than the corner from a scrum penalty on the half-hour.
The Corkman was on the mark but the points were almost immediately cancelled out when Greig Laidlaw landed his first pot at the posts at the other end.
Four minutes before the interval Munster again spurned the opportunity to go for the corner, O'Gara's right boot furnishing them with a 12-3 cushion. Not until the final minute of the opening half did they go for broke from an attacking penalty. The Edinburgh defence creaked but managed to hold out.
All of which left Munster facing an uphill struggle on the bonus point front. And that was before they were reduced to 14 men nine minutes into the second-half, loosehead prop Dave Kilcoyne being yellow carded for stopping Laidlaw taking a quick tap penalty.
Still, in the 54th minute Laidlaw himself was sent to the sin bin – rather harshly, having had little option other than to palm the ball out of play while trying to prevent Keith Earls from getting to a chip into the in-goal area from scrum-half Conor Murray. From the resulting penalty, the back-pedalling home pack rose to concede a penalty try award.
That left Munster 26 minutes to get three more five-point scores. The second arrived in the 62nd minute, Murray following up a charge by centre James Downey to dive over from close range. There were two more tries in the last eight minutes, but both were claimed by the Edinburgh wing Dougie Fife.
The red army of Munster fans could not hide their disappointment but Penney insisted he had no regrets about going for points rather than tries before the interval.
"It was critical that we got the win first," he said.
Edinburgh: Tries Fife 2; Conversions Laidlaw 2; Penalty Laidlaw. Munster: Tries Penalty try, Murray; Conversions O'Gara 2; Penalties O'Gara 4.
Edinburgh: G Tonks; D Fife, B Cairns (B Atiga, 55), M Scott, T Visser; G Laidlaw (capt), R Rees; R Hislop (A Allan, 71), S Lawrie (A Titterrell, 49), W Nel (G Cross, 71), G Gilchrist (N Talei, 71), S Cox, S McInally, D Basilaia (R Grant, h-t), D Denton.
Munster: F Jones; D Howlett (capt), K Earls, J Downey (C Laulala, 64), S Zebo; R O'Gara (I Keatley, 65), C Murray (D Williams, 71); D Kilcoyne, D Varley, BJ Botha, D O'Callaghan (B Holland, 71), D Ryan, P O'Mahony, T O'Donnell, J Coughlan (W du Preez, 51-59, P Butler, 65).
Referee: G Garner (RFU).Reuse content