Munster hit the new ground running last night as they won their opening pre-season game on Musgrave Park’s freshly installed playing surface to defeat Declan Kidney’s London Irish 32-28.
Johann van Graan’s first close season as head coach since succeeding Rassie Erasmus last November got off to a flying start on a modified 3G pitch in Cork that produced nine tries, five of them to the home side on a night of entertaining, high-tempo rugby.
Former Munster boss Kidney, who said he was humbled by the warm welcome he received as from a healthy crowd as he climbed the steps of the main stand to the visitors’ coaches’ box on his return to his hometown, is also in the midst of his first pre-season as technical consultant at Irish having taken over a side last spring with Les Kiss as his head coach destined for relegation from the Premiership.
Facing into a tough season in the English second tier, the experienced coaching duo will have been encouraged by the performance from their squad, an archetypal mix of experience and youth, but it was Munster’s night.
Despite going behind against the run of play to a breakaway try from centre Matt Williams, Munster regained control with first-half tries from an impressive Darren Sweetnam, Brian Scott, and Dan Goggin, the Exiles finishing the opening period with a converted try form Greig Tonks.
Leading 20-14 at the break, Munster never looked in any trouble even as multiple changes at half-time and soon after saw both sides play most of the second period with completely different XVs to the ones which started.
For Munster that meant a debut at full-back for Irish-qualified former England U20 Mike Haley, signed from Sale Sharks while scrum-half Neil Cronin, signed from Garryowen, also got a 15-minute run as the third number nine deployed on the evening.
It did not detract from the entertainment as Munster pulled away, replacement hooker Mike Sherry scoring two second-half tries, both converted by Ian Keatley, to open up a 32-14 lead with five minutes remaining.
Yet van Graan and his coaching staff will have been disappointed to have conceded two late tries to Topsy Ojo and Scott Steele, both converted by fly-half Stephen Myler, a canny signing from Northampton who may well give Kidney and Kiss the leadership required to take London Irish straight back into the top flight.
“There were rough bits of play from both sides, the first try for both sides came from errors but the big thing for us, the big learning for us would be the breakdown.”
As for Munster, there were positives from many performances, particularly the showings of academy players including starting No. 8 Gavin Coombes and an exciting starting back three of Stephen Fitzgerald, Calvin Nash, and Sweetnam, who looked to relish the newly installed fast track.
It will take some more games for the pitch to bed in before it performs at the levels expected from a state of the art surface. Rather similar to the new-look squad looking to reap the rewards playing on it.
A more telling barometer will come in the form of Premiership big guns and Munster’s Champions Cup pool rivals Exeter Chiefs, who visit Cork next Friday but for now, van Graan’s squad is up and running with this momentum-generating victory.
MUNSTER: S Fitzgerald (M Haley, h-t); C Nash (L Coombes, h-t; A McHenry, 72), D Goggin (R Scannell, 72), R Scannell (S Daly, h-t), D Sweetnam (C Nash, 65); JJ Hanrahan (I Keatley, 45), J Hart (J Stafford, 45; N Cronin, 65); J Loughman (C Gleeson, 30; D Kilcoyne, 50), K O’Byrne (M Sherry, h-t), B Scott (C Parker, 30-65) ; F Wycherley (B Holland, h-t), D O’Shea (J Kleyn, h-t); D O’Callaghan (S O’Connor, h-t; Wycherley, 67), T O’Donnell - captain (J Daly, 50), G Coombes (T O’Donnell, 67).
LONDON IRISH: G Tonks; T Ojo, M Williams (S Steele, 23), F Mulchrone, O Hassell-Collins; T Brophy Clews, B Meehan; G Reid, D Porecki, O Hoskins (P du Plessis, h-t); T Paulo (B Maddison, S de Chaves; J McNally - captain, M Northcote-Green, M Rogerson.
Half-time replacements: S Fainga’a, H Elrington, P du Plessis, B Maddison, S Twomey, B McKibbin, S Myler, J O’Sullivan, I Curtis-Harris, J Schatz, B Campbell, R Knight, S Steele, S O’Hagan.
Referee: Frank Murphy (IRFU)