Against all the odds, the Rassie Erasmus era began with a morale-boosting 23-13 victory for Munster over a much-fancied Scarlets side in West Wales.
The new director of rugby saw his debut season at the helm get underway with neither a bang nor whimper and without a performance that could point definitively to the brave new world envisioned by the incoming South African boss.
Yet in the Llanelli drizzle, Munster laid down a significant marker that the good times just might be on the horizon.
They went into the campaign opener against the backdrop of limited player availability due to injuries and the absence of international frontliners, and a lousy recent record at Parc y Scarlets.
What is more Wayne Pivac’s side, fifth last season and the best of the Welsh regions, were being touted as one of the coming forces in the Pro12.
Even with the re-signed Lions centre Jon Davies on the bench, the home side had a potentially devastating backline spearheaded by Rhys Patchell and full-back Liam Williams, aided by a woeful start from the visitors.
Erasmus’s side just could not get their hands on the ball and when they did, their lineout twice malfunctioned kept them on the back foot.
Only a desperate try-saving effort from Simon Zebo denied wing Steffan Evans an opening try as the Munster full-back just won their foot race after Liam Williams had opened them up on halfway and after 16 minutes the Scarlets dominance was such that they had made just two tackles to that point compared to Munster’s 42.
Portents of a long and arduous afternoon appeared to becoming reality when Zebo was forced off two minutes later, still feeling the effects of the bang on the ribs he shipped in preventing the Evans touchdown.
But Munster finally sparked into life and from their first visit to the opposition 22, they came away with seven points, courtesy of a great carry from lock Dave Foley and an intelligent switch of direction by scrum-half Duncan Williams from the base of a ruck to put James Cronin into a defensive gap under the posts, the prop driven over by mana of the match Tommy O’Donnell.
Fly-half Bleyendaal dispatched the first two of his 10 points for the day and the Erasmus reign was up and running.
The second try, minutes later was equally clinical, borne of a strong Jack O’Donoghue carry in midfield and a strong cleanout from centre Rory Scannell which allowed Ronan O’Mahony to pick up from the ruck and streak clear and go beneath the posts.
Yet any inclination to think all Munster’s problems were consigned to the past were dismissed soon after. A penalty against captain Billy Holland’s side inside the Scarlets half caught them napping. As the Munster players slowly regrouped, scrum-half Gareth Davies tapped and flew away to score.
It will have helped Erasmus underline how much further along the road there is for this Munster squad to travel but the former Springbok has plenty of positives on which to solidify these encouraging foundations.
The scrum with John Ryan at tighthead and the disruptive Cronin burrowing away at loosehead earned two significant penalties as Munster eked out their 17-10 half-time lead, while the lineout recovered from its shaky beginnings to expose an times fragile opposing unit.
And while 13 penalties conceded is a measure of the need for a much more disciplined and accurate approach, it was also a sign of just how much was asked of Munster defensively on Saturday.
That they won this opening game with just 35% possession and denied a potential play-off rival a losing bonus point after Bleyendaal and Zebo’s replacement Ian Keatley had kicked a penalty apiece in a scrappy second half to open up a 10-point margin of victory barely tells the story of the defensive shift put in by the visitors.
One look at the Scarlets lineout suggested that this opening encounter on the road would provide the stiffest of examinations for new defence coach Jacques Nienaber and the systems he has been striving to introduce during pre-season.
Aside from that slide in concentration for Davies’s try, the test was passed with flying colours. Munster’s linespeed was quick and unsettling, consistently stopping Scarlets from getting over the gainline and preventing their backline from firing and no wonder man of the match O’Donnell praised former Stormers and Springboks coach Nienaber for bringing “fantastic” energy to the province’s defence since his arrival.
Much like the overall performance, it was far from perfect and there will no doubt be more difficult days lying in wait as this squad continues to develop under the new coaching set-up.
Yet in making a winning start to life under Erasmus, this was a committed and physical display that should give the management team and Munster supporters plenty of optimism for good times ahead.
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