Two tries for returning hero Simon Zebo, another double for Gavin Coombes and a comeback from injury for RG Snyman. There was plenty for Munster’s supporters to cheer as they witnessed their side in competition for the first time in 19 months and get their United Rugby Championship campaign underway with a big win over South African newcomers Cell C Sharks on Saturday in Limerick.
Munster ran in six tries to collect a bonus-point victory in this new 16-team competition with Zebo grabbing the first and final scores of a celebratory first night when World Cup winner Snyman came off the bench in the second half to end his 13-month injury nightmare and Craig Casey marked his man of the match performance with a poacher’s try in front of more than 11,000 supporters.
Amid all the freshness of this inaugural United Rugby Championship not everything was necessarily brand spanking new and for Munster’s supporters returning to Thomond Park for their first competitive match since February 2020 there was plenty that seemed refreshing old school and familiar on Saturday night.
It was the traditions that hit home the most on this special evening as the 2021-22 campaign got under way beneath the floodlights and a darkening Limerick skyline. There was the standing ovation as Peter O’Mahony led his squad on their customary half-lap of the pitch at the end of their warm-up, followed soon after by the traditional pre-match rendition of Stand Up and Fight, albeit delivered by Jean Walace via the stadium big screens.
And then there was the sight of Simon Zebo pouncing on a loose ball on halfway and racing down the left wing to score his 61st try for Munster, just six minutes into his second debut for his native province to mark his return from three seasons at Racing 92 in immaculate fashion, his name resounding from the stands as he then delivered his trademark Z signal in response.
Joey Carbery missed the conversion but kicked his first penalty on 29 minutes after Munster had dominated possession and territory and had shown themselves ever willing to go to the edges in search of space without applying the finishing touches.
Sharks full-back Curwen Bosch had missed an early penalty but made no mistake with his second attempt in front of the posts two minutes later but the good vibes returned in the remaining minutes of the opening period, first Craig Casey pouncing from the back of a five-metre scrum, the scrum-half’s snipe down the blindside aided by a show-and-go that wrong-footed his nearest defender to create the space to score his first try of the season on 35 minutes.
Carbery again missed his conversion but soon made amends as Munster scored against in first-half overtime, hooker Niall Scannell tapping a penalty from five metres out and carrying to the line before Gavin Coombes finished powerfully from close-range.
Again, it was a familiar scene for Munster supporters who had seen the back-rower lead the province last season with 15 tries and Carbery this time added the extras to send the home side into the break with a healthy 20-3 lead.
The interval offered little respite for the Sharks as Munster continued their dominance from the restart, Coombes claiming his second try of the night on 51 minutes, again from close range as Dave Kilcoyne tapped from five metres out.
It chalked up the try bonus point for Munster and that triggered a drop in tempo that allowed the Sharks an entry back into the contest, fly-half Boetha Chamberlain intercepting a pass from opposite number Carbery to claim the South African’s first try on 56 minutes and wing Yaw Penxe adding another on 70 minutes after Carbery’s replacement Ben Healy had kicked a monster penalty from halfway.
The concession of two tries reawakened Munster’s appetite for points, though, with replacement Chris Cloete scoring on 77 minutes and Zebo crowning his dream comeback with a second, running onto Dan Goggin’s kick through to calmly gather a metre from the line for the home side’s sixth and final score of the night.
M Haley; A Conway, D Goggin, R Scannell, S Zebo; J Carbery (B Healy, 63), C Casey (R Osborne, 75); D Kilcoyne (J Loughman, 59), N Scannell (D Barron, 59), J Ryan (K Knox, 53); J Kleyn (T Ahern, 53), F Wycherley (RG Snyman, 65); P O’Mahony - captain, J O’Donoghue (C Cloete, 59), G Coombes.
C Bosch; Y Penxe, W Kok (J Ward, 63), M Louw (S Nohamba, 72), T Abrahams; B Chamberlain, R Pienaar (M Gumede, 72); K Mona (N Mchunu, 49), K van Vuuren (F Mbatha, 59), T du Toit (K Mnuchu, 72); L R Roets (R van Heerden, 52), G Grobler; D Richardson, H Venter (K Mchunu, 34-39, H Andrews, 57), P Buthelezi - captain.
: Du Toit 29-39
Craig Evans (Wales).