Munster survived an early scare at home to Guinness PRO14 conference bottom club Zebre to come from behind and grab a bonus-point victory on Saturday night.
The Italians had raced into a 12-0 lead after 18 minutes thanks to tries from James Elliott and Roberto Tenga as Munster struggled to keep pace.
Yet three tries from driving mauls, the first on the stroke of half-time, and one apiece from backs Darren Sweetnam and Mike Haley gave Johann van Graan’s team the full five points in their chase for a home play-off semi-final.
Munster began to re-integrate their Ireland corps following the Six Nations campaign with CJ Stander captaining the side at No.8, while hooker Niall Scannell, tighthead prop John Ryan, and centre Chris Farrell were among the replacements.
There was also a welcome start at blindside flanker for Jack O’Donoghue as he continued his comeback from a serious knee injury suffered last May in the PRO14 semi-final at Leinster.
With another raft of Ireland regulars including Peter O’Mahony, Conor Murray and Keith Earls set to return to training on Monday following an extra week’s rest, this was an opportunity to stake a claim for the trip to Murrayfield as well as the more immediate objective of keeping the pressure on PRO14 Conference A leaders Glasgow Warriors.
Yet Zebre had not read the script any more than Munster had heeded their coach’s warnings against complacency as the Italians took the lead on nine minutes with a try in the corner for left wing Elliott, the former Northampton Saint running in unopposed with the home defence sucked in by his side’s multi-phase play.
Carlo Canna missed the conversion but things went from bad to worse for Munster when Zebre once again went through the phases.
They advanced to the home five-metre line from where fly-half Canna stabbed a kick through the defensive line and then saw Munster full-back Mike Haley spill the bouncing ball straight to Zebre prop Roberto Tenga who dropped over the line for the visitors’ second try.
Canna’s conversion put Michael Bradley’s team into a 12-0 lead after 18 minutes and it should have been more had the fly-half not wasted two kicks at goal from penalties, the second of which on 37 minutes had been reversed in Zebre’s favour after Munster scrum-half Alby Mathewson bundled an opponent to the ground after the whistle in an effort to retrieve the ball.
What progress Munster did make in the opening half was undone by sloppy turnovers but as the clock ticked towards half-time they gained a valuable foothold in the contest after gaining territory thanks to a scrum penalty in the 40th minute.
JJ Hanrahan kicked into the left corner and from the five-metre lineout and driving maul, loosehead Jeremy Loughman was driven over the line to get his side on the scoreboard.
Hanrahan’s conversion attempt from the left touchline struck an upright to end the half but Munster were at long last up and running, albeit trailing 12-5.
The deficit was cut further still 12 minutes into the second half when another driving maul saw hooker Rhys Marshall touch down in the left corner, Tyler Bleyendaal marking his introduction as Hanrahan’s expense a minute earlier with a successful touchline conversion to level the scores at 12-12.
From there it was one-way traffic even though Munster lost flanker Chris Cloete to the sin bin in the 57th minute.
Being one-man down did not stop the home side from stretching Zebre’s defences eight minutes later when Darren Sweetnam scored in the corner and when the Reds were restored to their full complement yet another driving maul brought up the bonus point, substitute hooker Niall Scannell on the end of the drive to dot down in the 68th minute.
Still time for one more, and this time it was Haley in open play, breaking through down the right and riding two tackles to grab the score, Bleyendaal’s conversion completing the scoring and the night’s entertainment.
It was not pretty at times but with Glasgow grabbing a bonus point win at home to the Cheetahs on Saturday night, Munster at least kept pace with the leaders with three games remaining.
#MUNvZEB 🦌vs🦓 thanks @Munsterrugby for an enjoyable game of #Rugby. Thanks to @thomondstadium applauses 👏, this means much for our young team.— Zebre Rugby Club 🦓 (@ZebreRugby) March 23, 2019
Best luck for the @PRO14Official playoffs and for the @ChampionsCup knock-out stages.
We can't wait to challenge you next season! 💪
M Haley; D Sweetnam, D Goggin, R Scannell, A Wootton (C Farrell, 45); JJ Hanrahan (T Bleyendaal, 51), A Mathewson (D Williams, 77); J Loughman (L O’Connor, 70), R Marshall (N Scannell, 53), S Archer (J Ryan, 53); F Wycherley, D O’Shea (J Kleyn, 53); J O’Donoghue, C Cloete (A Botha, 67), CJ Stander - captain.
E Padovani (M Bellini, 52); G Di Giulio, G Bisegni, T Boni, J Elliott; C Canna (F Brummer, 48), G Palazzani (M Violi, 63); A Lovotti (D Rimpelli, 66), O Fabiani (L Luus, 52) , R Tenga (M Ciccioli, 58); D Sisi, G Biagi - captain (L Krumov, 67); M Mbanda, J Tuivaiti, R Giammarioli.
Dan Jones (Wales)