Munster romped into the Heineken Champions Cup Round of 16 with a convincing bonus-point victory over Wasps on Sunday as supporters returned in their thousands to Thomond Park.
The province had raised its capacity from 5,000 supporters on Friday night following the relaxation of government public health guidelines and had 13,047 in attendance in Limerick. Those that got the chance to be there witnessed a much-improved performance after more than a month of Covid-related disruptions and squad rotation that had nevertheless delivered three pool wins from three.
This fourth victory and third in a row since a much-criticised United Rugby Rugby Championship defeat at Connacht on January 1 claimed third place in Pool B and was Munster’s most-rounded performance to date.
They would have to wait until the final game of the weekend in Pool B between Exeter Chiefs and Montpellier before learning their knockout opponents with Exeter and Sale Sharks the possible candidates depending on which of them would finish sixth in Pool A, First-half tries from Conor Murray, Simon Zebo and Jack O’Donoghue gave them a 24-7 interval lead before Jeremy Loughman brought up the fourth try and a bonus point soon after the half-time break. Late tries from Zebo, a pre-match addition to the starting line-up, and Rory Scannell added some extra gloss to the scoreline, Munster had kicked off knowing they were guaranteed a top-four finish in Pool B, thereby guaranteeing a home second leg in the round of 16 in April but had that third place in their sights while Wasps still had the carrot of needing just a point to reach the knockout stages.
It made for an intriguing set-up as the English side, augmented by a number of fit-again players who had missed the round-one defeat to a Covid-hit Munster side featuring eight debutants, sought revenge for that upset in Coventry last month.
They had been further buoyed by two significant victories in their most recent outings, becoming the first side in England to defeat Premiership leaders Leicester Tigers this season and following that up with a famous win over European champions Toulouse at home last week.
Wasps were still missing some important figures such as back-rowers Jack Willis and Alfie Barbeary and creative backs Jimmy Gopperth and the suspended Jacob Umaga.
Yet Munster had been forced into two late changes to their starting line-up. They lost Ireland Six Nations squad members Keith Earls (strain) and Dave Kilcoyne (illness). Zebo, originally named among the replacements moved onto the left wing to replace Earls and Jeremey Loughman came in for Kilcoyne, who had been set for his 200th Munster cap at loosehead prop, with Josh Wycherley drafted onto the bench as cover.
The disruption allowed Van Graan to change the configuration of his replacements, choosing to fill the void created by Zebo’s promotion to the back three with back-row forward Alex Kendellen, Munster starting the game with six forwards and two backs in reserve rather than five and three respectively.
Zebo would not waste too much time getting on the scoresheet and struck when Munster were already 10-0 to the good after an extremely sharp start on a chilly but dry afternoon at Thomond Park that saw Conor Murray score the opening try on seven minutes, converted by Ben Healy, who added a penalty eight minutes later.
Munster were playing with a good variety in their rugby and it was the pressure they were applying without the ball that was also reaping rewards, forcing Wasps into mistakes from where the home side was able to regain possession.
Murray’s try had also enjoyed a slice of good fortune, as the ball cannoned back into his path having passed to Tadhg Beirne running a sharp line from five metres out. A TMO review showed the ball had come off Wasps’ scrum-half Dan Robson before his opposite number ran in under the posts from short-range.
Zebo’s score on 18 minutes moved the Corkman past former Racing 92 team-mate Juan Imhoff into joint third in the competition’s all-time try-scoring list alongside Brian O’Driscoll on 33 and it came after more pressure had forced Robson into a sliced clearing kick, The resulting lineout quickly found Healy, who delivered a deft chip in behind the Wasps defensive line for Zebo to run onto and score despite the attentions of two tacklers.
Healy again converted and though Wasps finally found their feet and applied some pressure of their own with a try from Robson on 26 minutes, converted by Charlie Atkinson, it was the Munster fly-half next called into action again just four minutes later.
This time it was a try from Jack O’Donoghue, marking his 150th Munster appearance, As he picked up the ball after Gavin Coombes had struck from the back of a scrum inside the 22. The No.8 had charged through two tackles before he was finally brought to ground a metre from the line and his back-row partner enjoyed the quick ball he presented to run in unopposed from a metre out, Healy’s conversion opening up a 24-7 lead.
Munster closed out the half inside their own 22 and conceding penalties to the annoyance of French referee Tual Trainini, who sin-binned Coombes six minutes before half-time for some indiscipline on the Munster tryline but Wasps failed to take advantage thanks to some outstanding defence from the home side which held firm for nine challenging phases before the whistle blew in their favour. It elicited a huge roar but the opening half finished on a more sombre note as Wasps flanker Thomas Yong received lengthy treatment following his side’s assault on the line leaving the field on a stretcher, his side still trailing 24-7 at the interval.
The bonus point came on 43 minutes as Munster came away with points from their first foray into the 22 after the restart. Their maul defence had been sound and it reaped rewards offensively as well as the home forwards, still missing the yellow-carded Coombes, drove to the line from where Loughman pounced off the back of a ruck, Healy converting.
Munster lost some of their rhythm as the benches started to empty but remained in control of the ball for long stretches of the second half and also had a try from Andrew Conway disallowed for a knock-on with nine minutes to go.
The scores still came though, Zebo claiming his second of the match with two minutes remaining to move past O’Driscoll to third outright in the competition’s standings with his 34th European try before Scannell added a sixth of the night, Jack Crowley’s conversion ending the game to give Munster supporters even more to cheer.
M Haley (J Crowley, 56-67 - HIA); A Conway, C Farrell, R Scannell, S Zebo; B Healy (J Crowley 67), C Murray (C Casey, 66); J Loughman (J Wycherley, 58), D Barron (S Buckley, 50), S Archer (J Ryan, 58); J Kleyn (F Wycherley, 58), T Beirne; P O’Mahony - captain (J Hodnett, 69), J O’Donoghue, G Coombes (A Kendellen, 58).
G Coombes 34-44.
A Crossdale; M Watson (W Porter, 52), P Odogwu, M LeBourgeois (S Spink, 46), J Bassett; C Atkinson, D Robson ; T West (R Martinez, 46 - HIA), T Cruse (G Oghre, 49), E Millar-Mills (P Scholtz, 63); E Stooke, J Gaskell; B Shields - captain (T Cardall, 68) , T Young (B Morris, 36; T Cruse - HIA 68), N Carr.
D Robson 51-61.
Tual Trainini (France).