A fine comeback by Munster 'A' saw Jersey Reds denied the chance to lift the British & Irish Cup after defeat by the narrowest of margins.
Stunned by the visitors' strong start and trailing by 18 points as the final minute of the first half ticked around, the Irish province rallied with four tries in 16 minutes to get their hands on the trophy they had previously won in 2012.
It was cruel on Jersey, who also went out of the B&I by one point at the semi-final stage of last season's B&I, but the consolation was to have played a full part in a pulsating match, possibly the most exciting final so far in eight seasons of this competition.
Irish Independent Park witnessed a storming start from the visitors, with a break down the left by Ross Adair enabling winger Nick Scott to glide over in the corner and touch down after just 70 seconds. Callum Sheedy added two penalties, and soon afterwards the fly-half converted his team's second try. With the hosts bracing themselves for Jersey's renowned maul, quick ball at the front of a lineout was fed back by James Freeman and Gary Graham to hooker Joe Buckle, who ploughed over (pictured below by Sue Armes).
The home side were rattled, conceding penalties in quick succession and making a series of handling errors that prevented them gaining a foothold in the match. But eventually they were able to secure the possession and territory that enabled Gavin Coombes to force his way over the line in the 40th minute.
The second half began amid a backdrop of mounting noise from the home supporters, plus a boisterous contingent from Jersey, in a crowd that was given officially as 983 but appeared much higher. Those present knew the first score of the second half would be important, and it was the home side who claimed it within 90 seconds, hooker Kevin O'Byrne going over after some powerful approach play by his team-mates.
Both sides were feeling the tension and an outbreak of fisticuffs took a while to settle down, although referee Craig Maxwell-Keys deemed no action was necessary.
Although Kieran Hardy restored Jersey's lead with a 40-metre burst to the line after a Munster scrum had buckled, the Irish side were looking potent and their discipline and handling was unrecognisable, with pressure mounting on the Reds. David Johnston darted over for the hosts' third try, and then Munster took the lead for the first time when the back-line set Alex Wootton off on a brilliant run down the left. The winger beat several tackles and scored near the posts.
Although Sheedy briefly restored his side's lead from the tee, Johnston added a penalty with 10 minutes to go and the Reds couldn't find the winning score they needed in the closing stages in spite of some threatening runs by Apakuki Ma'afu and replacement Lewis Robling.
Jersey Head Coach Harvey Biljon was disappointed to have fallen at the final hurdle by the narrowest of margins.
"We had done really well to build a good lead by taking our opportunities - you don't get many chances against a good team," he said. "The tries just before and after half-time were crucial and we made a couple of uncharacteristic lapses, but overall the team and the Island can be proud of the season that we've had."
The Reds were cheered on by more than 200 supporters, of whom 100 had made the trip from Jersey on two charter flights. The visiting fans were a noisy presence throughout, and brought the best out of the home support as well. Although they were not carrying a trophy, the Reds players were given a rousing welcome as they arrived at neighbouring Sunday's Well RFC, where many of their supporters were enjoying post-match refreshment.
Munster Head Coach Peter Malone hailed the battling efforts of his team.
"It took us 25 minutes to get into the game because of the massive pressure Jersey put us under and our own mistakes, but getting a try on the board before the break meant we were in the game," he said. "The boys were very calm and collected at half-time and I felt they had the belief to win.
"Jersey really made us work - they were the best Championship side we'd encountered and fully deserved their place in the final.
Munster 'A': Fitzgerald; Goggin, Arnold (O'Shea G 77), Bohane (c), Wootton; Johnston, Poland; McCabe (O'Connor L 52), O’Byrne (Casey 64), Scott (Burke 53), Chisholm (Wycherley 69), O’Shea D, Coombes, Oliver, Copeland (O'Connor S 73.
Not used: Griesel
Jersey Reds: Adair (Robling 71); Watkins, Davies, Ma’afu, Scott; Sheedy, Hardy (Dudley 78); Woolmore (McCarthy 53), Buckle (Selway 57), Kerrod (Armstrong 64), Phillips, Voss (Kolo’ofai 53), Freeman (c), Graham (Argyle 66), Haining.
REFEREE: Craig Maxwell-Keys. Assistants: Lionel Spooner, Anthony Woodthorpe
Half Time: 7-18
Tries: Coombes 40, O'Byrne 42, Johnston 51, Wootton 55
Conversions: Johnston 40, 42, 55
Penalty: Johnston 70
Tries: Scott 2, Buckle 16, Hardy 45
Conversions: Sheedy 16, 45
Penalties: Sheedy 6, 8, 60
18 May 2023
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