The scoreline speaks volumes. Munster enjoyed a record league winning margin against a beleaguered Zebre team whose performance mirrored that of their international team over recent weeks with a display devoid of organization or attacking intent throughout.
Let us be quite frank. Zebre were lucky that Munster only scored forty-seven points on the night such was the sheer dominance enjoyed by Anthony Foley’s charges throughout the eighty minutes. Munster played against an extremely strong wind in the opening forty minutes but you could not really tell that the visitors had the elements at their backs such was the backs to the wall defending required from minute one.
The major talking point for the hosts ahead of the fixture was the decision to start Johnny Holland at ten in place of Ian Keatley. The Cork Constitution player took his chance well helped by a dominant pack but his kicking was on point and he linked with his runner quite effectively. Whether Foley shows faith in the youngster in the cauldron of a blood and thunder derby against Leinster in Dublin next weekend is entirely different story.
Match official Dudley Philips was a busy man throughout the contest as Zebre were constantly pinged at the breakdown and with their scrum a clear second best, the IRFU referee had no option but to put Italian players into the bin as early as twenty-two minutes of lock Geldenhuys for deliberately trying to take down a Munster maul enroute to their first penalty try of the evening.
Zebre were still reeling from this sin bin when winger Toniolatti was also summoned to the sin bin for a careless boot. It looked a little harsh on replays and Munster players were not incensed enough to confront Philips on the incident. Zebre were down to thirteen players and the high tackle count was going to take its toll on the Italians later in the contest.
Munster will look at this contest with some level of satisfaction. They protected the ball well at times, the pack was cohesive where the scrum was truly dominant. The one trend of the contest in the first half was the lack of supporting runners for Munster players who broke the game line. This was evident in Keith Earls line break midway through the half, evaded several tackles and after a line break gain of twenty meters looked for passing options, there were none and Earls had to resort to a long speculative pass to O’Donnell which was not received. It summed Munster season to date perfectly, plenty of good setup work but no composure when required to put points on the board.
Munster continued to work the Zebre tackle count with one off line runners, pretty predictable one dimensional stuff but the Italians were offering nothing in terms of attacking intent. When they did get into Munster territory, Haimona decided to go for the posts and his shank was as brutal as the Italians performance on the night. Munster had already scored a second try before Haimona’s penalty miss. Ronan O’Mahoney scoring in the corner after a regulation training ground set move involving Scannell and Holland.
The lack of organization from Zebre at set-piece time bordered on the ridiculous. The Munster first try was a clear illustration of how the Italians were wholly incapable of deciding whether to compete or defend the Munster lineout which led to the penalty try. Munster were in cruise control and the second half was a procession with the strong Atlantic breeze behind the hosts.
The second half will be remembered for Simon Zebo landmark two tries which takes the Munster winger / full back ahead in the all time Munster trying scoring list. His tries were well worked and special kudos goes to promising back player Darren Sweetnam whose running lines setup the space for Zebo to touchdown.
CJ Stander and Conor Murray on the bench then came on to the utter disillusionment of Zebre to score a try each and when Zebre were forced to deliberately kill ball for a second penalty try, the white flag was waved well before then. Zebre had taken enough punches during the contest, a team battered and bruised, a team devoid of any confidence or organization, a team who cannot wait for the season to conclude.
Munster’s victory and five point haul was the requirements from the night. The score line will do the scoring difference no harm at all but Anthony Foley and coaching staff know that next weekend will be a formidable proposition and a win is also required against arch rival Leinster to realistically stake a claim for a top four playoff berth. Top four in the league standings heading into a pivotal fixture next weekend and puts pressure on Ulster as a direct result after their defeat to steadily improving Glasgow Warriors.
The other point from a Munster Rugby is the search for a Director of Rugby who Anthony Foley will report to. An important decision and the candidates are pretty scarce given the lack of investment resources at their disposal. The rumors of a certain Paul O’Connell for the role are not being squashed and one suspects that with JP McManus in tow, Paul O’Connell will be playing an important in Munster Rugby from next season.