For the first time since 2012, Munster ‘A’ are through to the British & Irish Cup final with a thoroughly convincing and astute performance against Ealing Trailfinders at CIT this evening, Peter Malone’s charges winning out 25-9.
Although no man-of-the-match accolade was officially awarded tonight, the general consensus among the supporters was that Conor Oliver would be a worthy recipient. Equally impressive in defence and attack, Oliver was central to all that was good about Munster 'A' tonight, setting up the first try and adding a further two of his own with less than 50 minutes played.
To keep an Ealing team that had notched up 20 tries in their last two game scoreless was testament to the Munster 'A' defence, with the remainder of the province's points coming via the boot of the Johnston brothers. Willie Ryan, brother of Munster prop John Ryan and a former Cork Constitution and UCC player, featured at blindside flanker for Ealing.
Munster 'A' were unfortunate to lose Bill Johnston to injury before half time. The Academy out-half was stretchered off and taken to hospital for a potentially serious ankle injury. He will continue to be assessed by the Munster medical team.
Scrappy at times from the off, a series of knock-ons and penalties cost both sides chances in the opening minutes, but make no mistake, Munster 'A' came to play. They looked to put width on the ball with some deft passing and neat interplay between backs and forwards. Robin Copeland and David Johnston, in particular, also causing the visitors all sorts of problems early on.
The initial pressure from Peter Malone's young charges was eventually rewarded with a penalty in front of the posts on 16 minutes which Bill Johnston duly slotted for the opening score.
The hosts then followed up with the game's first try. A barnstorming run saw Oliver cut inside the Ealing defence and bulldoze his way through a tackle before setting up a quick ruck off of which centre Sam Arnold touched down with Bill Johnston converting.
The province's attempts to illegally bring down a maul allowed Rory Clegg get Ealing off the mark but Oliver continued to be a thorn in Ealing’s side. This time a neat return pass from Kevin O'Byrne saw the Academy back rower race in for a try. Losing Bill Johnston to injury, his older brother David was just as assured off the tee in slotting the conversion.
A rising penalty count would not have pleased Malone and his coaching team, with Clegg gifted two kickable penalties in as many minutes on the stroke of half time. The number 10 landed both kicks to make it very much 'game on' at half-time, 17-9.
Laying down a marker that this was to be their night, Munster 'A' made a dream start to the second half. Who else but Oliver as he continued his inspired performance with an intercept and speedy sprint to the right corner.
David Johnston was off target with the conversion but later added another three-pointer as Munster 'A' finished out a 10-minute spell during which they were down to 14 men.
The hosts’ continued ill-discipline saw Robin Copeland sent to the bin, but Ealing failed to take advantage as Munster 'A' controlled this semi-final tie beautifully, an accurate kicking game keeping their English visitors pinned back in their own half.
Try as Ealing might, there was no way through and Munster 'A' deservedly booked their place in the final of the British & Irish Cup for the third time. They will have home advantage against either London Irish or Jersey on the weekend of April 21-23 with the date for the final, venue and kick-off time to be confirmed in the coming days.
Meanwhile, former Wallaby Mark Chisholm and Shannon scrum half Jack Stafford made their British & Irish Cup debuts as second half replacements. It was hugely encouraging to see Chisholm back in red for his first rugby since March 2016, following his extended break on the sidelines due to concussion.
Referee: Rhys Thomas (Wales)