It came down to a TMO decision with time up but in the end it was to prove an afternoon of disappointment for the Ospreys at Thomond Park as they were denied a historic PRO12 semi-final win.
Twice Steve Tandy’s men had trailed by 13 points but they refused to lay down and die, showing the resilience that has become their trademark this season, and almost snatched victory with what looked like a stunning score at the last play from Josh Matavesi, only for referee, Nigel Owens, to go upstairs for a decision, TMO Gareth Simmonds ruling that Rhys Webb had knocked on at the base of a ruck earlier in the move.
It was a cruel ending for a young Ospreys team that had defied expectations all season and looked like doing so again in Limerick, only to see their hopes dashed, much to the relief of the big home crowd.
There were tries for Webb, his 14th for the region this season, and Jeff Hassler, along with eight points from the boot of Dan Biggar, but it wasn’t enough for the Ospreys to become the first ever team to win a PRO12 semi on the road.
The opening minutes were all Ospreys, the visitors enjoying possession and territory, probing the Munster line and looking for an opening. A good run from Dan Evans eventually gave them some momentum inside the 22, from where it was worked left,but Biggar was unable to find Scott Baldwin with what would have been a scoring pass out on the wing, the ball going into touch.
They were able to maintain the pressure and Eli Walker went close when he danced around Felix Jones and darted to the line, only for the covering CJ Stander and Conor Murray to haul him down, Munster winning the penalty at the breakdown on their own line.
From the resulting penalty the home team were able to secure lineout ball on halfway, from which they attacked at pace, Paddy Butler carrying well before Stephen Archer tried to barge his way over from close range only to be shoved into touch a metre out.
There’d barely been a second to pause for breath by the time Munster were penalised for not rolling away in front of their own posts, Biggar slotting it over to get the scoreboard moving in the 14th minute.
Munster responded within minutes, a high tackle allowing Keatley to slot over his first of the afternoon to level it.
A scrum penalty on halfway then allowed the hosts to go to the corner and after their impressive drive was ruled to have been halted illegally Keatley was able to put Munster ahead.
With the Thomond crowd roaring their team on, Munster were building up a head of steam, aided by a misfiring Ospreys lineout that saw their opponents steal possession on two successive throws, but impressive defence kept the men in red well away from the try line.
Five minutes before the break Keatley watched his long-range effort from the right drift well wide after Webb had been pinged for obstructing the kick chaser.
The first try of the game arrived on the stroke of half-time, and it went to the home team.
A Dan Evans overkick resulted in a Munster scrum on halfway which, although it looked in trouble, provided a platform from which to attack as it was hurriedly worked away from the base. Keatley carried well, Stander was up in support, and the number eight unselfishly fed Simon Zebo who went over in the corner. Keatley’s conversion attempt never looked like succeeding, meaning the teams headed down the tunnel with Munster holding an eight point lead.
HALF-TIME: MUNSTER 11 OSPREYS 3
It was crucial that the Ospreys made a positive start to the second half but, unfortunately, they found themselves further behind inside three minutes.
Munster’s attempt at a lineout drive was halted before it got going, but they stayed calm, regrouped, and after a typical Paul O’Connell charge, the forwards sucked in defenders before it was spun out wide to Denis Hurley who finished well in the corner under pressure from Walker. Keatley missed the conversion again, but now the Ospreys trailed by 13 points.
Just as the home crowd was beginning to sense the victory was theirs, they were served a wake up call as Munster handed Webb the simplest of tries just four minutes later.
The score came from a Munster put in midway inside their half, where a big Ospreys shove saw the home eight going backwards. Stander picked up and looked to offload to his scrum half, Duncan Williams, but only succeeded in giving it to the PRO12 player of the year who had an easy run-in to score an unconverted try.
However, Munster scored their third try just two minutes later, and this time it was Paddy Butler who dived over from close range after the forwards had combined to drive the hosts towards to the line. Keatley saw his conversion come back off the left hand upright, 21-8 to Munster.
An incredible spell of play continued when the Ospreys replied immediately with a great individual score from Hassler, the Canadian picking up a loose ball on halfway before jinking past two defenders and haring upfield to score. Biggar added the extras to bring the Ospreys back to within six points.
There was everything to play for going into final quarter and at this stage the Ospreys were on top, Hassler and Matavesi both running well from deep with ball in hand, but the red line held firm.
A penalty for going off the feet at a ruck then gave Biggar a sight at goal and, after a lengthy delay for Zebo to receive treatment, he made no mistake to reduce the deficit to just three points with 15 minutes remaining.
Munster threw everything at the Ospreys as they looked to make the game secure, but poor kicking ensured that the visitors stayed in contention. First, the Ospreys were penalised on their 22 for holding on, but Keatley once again failed to find the target, his last action before being replaced by JJ Hanrahan, who then missed from the tee himself, albeit from halfway.
While Munster kept plugging away at the Ospreys, a penalty for the visitors on their own line with just two minutes remaining allowed them one last opportunity. With lineout ball secured on halfway it was Marc Thomas who was the unlikely linebreaker as he burst though the Munster defence, taking play up into the 22 before the Ospreys were able to work an overlap on the right where Matavesi thought he had won the game, sparking wild celebrations on the field as Thomond Park was stunned into silence.
However, there was final twist as Webb’s knock on back on halfway was picked up on camera and that was that, as Munster progressed at the Ospreys expense.