Munster kept the pressure on Guinness PRO14 conference leaders Glasgow Warriors as they racked up a bonus-point victory over play-off rivals Cardiff Blues in Cork last night.
Johann van Graan’s side, which had ground out a narrow victory at Murrayfield six days earlier to win their European quarter-final at Edinburgh’s expense, turned the afterburners on at Musgrave Park as they ran in six tries against a side which had handed them a heavy defeat in Cardiff last September.
Cardiff had arrived in Cork looking to press their own play-off claims as they started the weekend level in third place with Connacht. But with the Westerners going to Zebre today, Munster did their provincial neighbours a big favour by denying the Welsh region both a losing bonus point and limiting them to three tries.
There were late changes aplenty before kick-off with Darren Sweetnam pressed into action at the last minute for the second week in a row. At Murrayfield it was in place of a sick Mike Haley but in Cork it was Keith Earls who pulled up during the warm-up with Sweetnam slotting onto the wings as Haley returned to full-back.
For Cardiff, there was a more fundamental change as fly-half Jarrod Evans was withdrawn and Grand Slam-winning fly-half Gareth Anscombe switched into his favoured position from full-back. Tellingly, that was the same move deployed before these teams met at the Arms Park on September 21 and resulted in a 37-13 Munster hammering.
The way Cardiff started the return fixture last night, it looked as if another mauling was on the cards as Ray Lee-Lo began to wreak havoc on the fast-paced artificial surface. Munster fly-half Tyler Bleyendaal had misjudged the swirling wind with his missed penalty in the third minute and Lee-Lo was quickly causing trouble, his break in midfield on six minutes opening up the home defence and scrum-half Tomos Williams followed suit eluding Rory Scannell’s tackle and then stepping Haley to score the opening try, Anscombe slotting the conversion.
Bleyendaal found his range soon after with a penalty and Munster turned the tide as they gathered momentum and Cardiff’s discipline began to fray, at least in the mind of referee Marius Mitrea. Lock Seb Davies’s no-arms tackle on Billy Holland opened the gate as Munster advanced upfield through their lineout maul and though they were halted five metres out with a scrum turnover, a poor pass off the back of the Cardiff set-piece from No 8 Josh Turnbull put scrum-half Williams under pressure from Conor Murray and the home side regained possession, Chris Farrell powering over a couple of phases later. Bleyendaal’s conversion gave Munster a 10-7 lead after 16 minutes.
When a Cardiff lineout misfired 10 minutes later, and Reds hooker Kevin O’Byrne mopped up the loose ball, Munster used another couple of penalties to return to the visitors’ 22, from where Jean Kleyn barged over, Bleyendaal’s conversion sending his side 17-7 up with 30 minutes gone.
Munster lost Murray for a head injury assessment, and things got worse when Cardiff struck two minutes before half-time, Lee-Lo once again doing the damage, his break down the left flank feeding wing Aled Summerhill who sprinted down the touchline to score, Anscombe’s conversion pushing the scoreboard to 17-14 as the half-time whistle sounded.
Murray returned after the interval having passed his HIA but his side started the second half by handing Cardiff three quick penalties leading to their third try on 46 minutes, scrum-half Williams taking a quick tap and passing to Lee-Lo for the simplest of scores and a conversion for Anscombe as the Welshmen regained the lead, if only for a short time. Three minutes later and Munster were back in front, newly-introduced replacement No.8 CJ Stander bulldozing over the line as Munster profited from another lineout play from inside the 22, Bleyendaal’s conversion putting them 24-21 up, three tries apiece, with 30 minutes still to play.
The bonus point, for either side, seemed a matter of when rather than if, and it went to Munster on the hour as Murray scored from the back of a ruck, Bleyendaal grabbing his fourth conversion of the night and then a fifth three minutes later when Andrew Conway raced into the right corner as Munster gained separation from their rivals at 38-21.
They added insult to injury with a late try from Sammy Arnold, barely a minute on the pitch for his comeback from a leg injury sustained in January, fellow replacement JJ Hanrahan nailing the left-touchline conversion to take the score to 45-21.
M Haley; A Conway, C Farrell (S Arnold, 75), R Scannell, D Sweetnam; T Bleyendaal (JJ Hanrahan, 64), C Murray (A Mathewson, 36-40 HIA; 63); D Kilcoyne (J Loughman, 63), K O’Byrne (N Scannell, 47), J Ryan (S Archer, 52); J Kleyn (T Beirne, 54), B Holland; P O’Mahony - captain, C Cloete, A Botha (CJ Stander, 44).
M Morgan; O Lane, R Lee-Lo, W Halaholo (H Millard, 58), A Summerhill (G Smith, 56); G Anscombe, T Williams (L Williams, 58); R Gill (B Thyer, 54), K Dacey - captain (E Lewis, 52), D Lewis (K Assiratti, 69); S Davies (G Earle, 69), R Thornton; S Lewis-Hughes (J Botham, 67), O Robinson, J Turnbull.
Marius Mitrea (Italy)