By Simon Lewis
Munster 50 Newport Gwent Dragons 27
Munster cruised to a bonus-point victory with an eight-try rout of the Dragons to book a home semi-final against Ospreys in next weekend's Guinness Pro12 play-off semi-finals. But it needed a late try in Galway to make sure they would be at Thomond Park next Saturday.
Even a bonus-point win for Anthony Foley's side would not have been good enough if both morning leaders Ospreys and second-placed Glasgow scored similar victories, over Connacht and fourth-placed Ulster respectively.
Munster had started the day in third, level on 70 points with Ospreys and Glasgow, but having secured a four-try bonus point as early as the 23rd minute and going on to demolish the Dragons at Musgrave Park with the help of a Conor Murray hat-trick of tries, they still needed to wait until events had fully unfolded at the Sportsground in Galway as Connacht kept Ospreys from scoring a fourth try.
Glasgow had beaten Ulster with a bonus point but Ospreys came up short and will now have to travel to Limerick next Saturday.
Foley's side had earned their try bonus point inside the first 23 minutes with outside centre Smith getting Munster up and running after four minutes with a break from the Dragons' 10-metre line.
O'Connell blocked a Dragons kick, flanker Paddy Butler gathered and fed the ball to Murray. The ball went through Keatley's hands to Smith who spotted a gap in the Newport line and broke free, running behind the posts for the opening try, the first of five converted by Keatley in the opening period of his 100th Munster appearance.
The Dragons had been 3-0 up with a Jason Tovey penalty on three minutes and they immediately rebounded from the Munster try as Taulupe Faletau ran back a poor Murray kick, the Wales and Lions No.8 passing to Ashton Hewitt, a late replacement for Hallam Amos on the left wing. Hewitt made his presence felt with a run into the corner and the Welsh region were 10-8 up following Tovey's conversion.
That was where the resistance ended though, Munster's pack dominating proceedings from there on in. Player of the season was driven over the line in the ninth minute, Murray scored his first off a similar platform and with the visitors down to 14 men grabbed his second five minutes later to seal the bonus point after Keatley had taken a tap penalty from inside the Dragons 22.
After that it was all academic but Munster kept up the pace. O'Connell grabbed a piece of the action, peeling off another driving maul to score his try just before half-time, Keatley missing his conversion to bring the first half to an end, Munster firmly in control at 33-10 in front.
Keith Earls kept the scoreboard turning over with a try, his sixth try in seven games when he raced into the corner in the 42nd minute, Keatley's conversion bringing up 40 points for Munster but that served as a cue for Dragons to reassert themselves.
They sent a reminder they were still present by getting over the line in the 50th minute as Tyler Morgan scored a try converted by Tovey and spent the next 10 minutes camped in the home side's half, gaining a numerical advantage when Paddy Butler was sin-binned in the 56th minute.
Yet Munster withstood the pressure without conceding further and even added to their own tally as Murray grabbed his hat-trick in the 64th minute. Newport rallied again with a try from sub prop Rhys Buckley before Ronan O'Mahony brought up Munster's 50th point. A final Dragons try from Jack Dixon and failed conversion was the final act in Cork but Munster's players waited on the pitch to learn their fate and the relief at learning they would be at home in the semis was clear as they and the 8,200 capacity crowd heard the news.
Munster: F Jones; K Earls (A Conway, 66), A Smith, D Hurley – captain, R O'Mahony; I Keatley (JJ Hanrahan, 55), C Murray (D Williams, 67); J Ryan (D Kilcoyne, 51), E Guinazu (N Scannell, 51), BJ Botha (S Archer, 66); B Holland, P O'Connell (J O'Donoghue, 69); D Ryan, P Butler, CJ Stander (S Dougall, 69).
Yellow card: Butler 56-66
Newport Gwent Dragons: J Tovey (G R Jones, 70); T Prydie, T Morgan (B Nightingale, 63), J Dixon, A Hewitt; D Jones, J Evans (R Rees, 51); B Stankovich (P Price, 66), H Gustafson (R Buckley, 63), B Harris (L Fairbrother, 66); C Hill (M Screech, 57), R Landman - captain; N Crosswell (R Buckley, 22-31; J Benjamin, 66), N Cudd, T Faletau.
Yellow card: Gustafson 20-30
Replacements not used: G R Jones.
Referee: Ben Whitehouse (Wales)