Munster 31 Zebre 12
Munster coach Johann van Graan said it is a boost having versatile back rower Jack O’Donoghue available again, but strongly hinted that he is going to go with the same 15 which saw off Exeter Chiefs when they travel to take on Edinburgh in the Champions Cup quarter-final next weekend.
O’Donoghue made his first start of the campaign on Saturday night after recovering from a serious knee injury picked up in the Pro14 semi-final loss to Leinster at the end of last season.
And the Waterford native produced an impressive showing on a night when Munster were surprisingly forced to dig deep before seeing off the challenge of Michael Bradley’s Zebre side.
Van Graan welcomed selection headaches but said he is boosted by having a settled starting side which he intends to send into battle at Murrayfield next weekend. But the return of O’Donoghue gives options.
“He pushed so hard to get back. He said, ‘Coach, will you give me an opportunity?’ I said I will, he made two appearances from the bench and one as a start.
"Now it's about looking at his performance and the performance of other players. Tommy O'Donnell is out, Chris Cloete is available, Tadhg Beirne could play on the flanks, CJ Stander could play on the openside. Arno Botha could play at number eight – Peter O'Mahony played there for Ireland against Australia back in the summer.
“Jack is definitely one of those guys with a few different things we can do. We have got some specific plans for opposition coming up, but very happy with that performance from Jack. He was very close to being man of the match.”
The Munster coach doesn’t expect to have any new injury worries to deal with when they reassemble in Limerick on Monday morning for a knockout European match; van Graan said he is going for consistency.
“The players know that I am not a guy that makes rash selection decisions. It’s good to have decisions to make and that’s all I can ask from the players, to keep me and the coaching staff under pressure to make these decisions.
“Then we make a call and we back the 23 that got selected. We said we need a squad for games like this [against Zebre], also games like next week. Now it’s knockout rugby. We have got one shot next weekend and it’s us versus Edinburgh.”
Van Graan said that Saturday’s night test, where they had to come from 12-0 down approaching the interval, was a good preparation for the demands of what lie ahead in Murrayfield next Saturday.
“Edinburgh have played fantastic rugby all season and they came last year for a quarter-final, which was really close, and Scotland came very close against the Irish in Edinburgh.
“They have been very good all season so we know what’s coming and that’s a big battle,” he added.
Munster's lineout drives got them back into contention after Zebre had punished their sloppiness at the back, with former Northampton winger James Elliott getting over in the left corner after 10 minutes while Mike Haley gifted Zebre their second try after 19 minutes when he spilled a grubber by Carlo Canna, and tighthead prop Roberto Tenga took full advantage to score from close range.
Canna missed a couple of penalty opportunities and Munster cut the interval gap to 12-5 when Jeremy Loughman powered over for his first try for the province after a penalty to the corner.
Munster's heavyweight bench made a difference after the restart, with Tyler Bleyendaal, Chris Farrell and Jean Kleyn particularly prominent as they went on to wear down the Zebre challenge to win the second half 26-0.
It took them time to stamp their authority but scores off lineout for Rhys Marshall and Niall Scannell did the business either side of a good one out wide from Darren Sweetnam, with the loss of Chris Cloete to a yellow card making little impact.
They finished in style for a flattering win when Haley got their fifth try in the closing stages.
Tries: J Loughman, R Marshall, D Sweetnam, N Scannell, M Haley
Cons: T Bleyendaal (3)
Tries: J Elliott, R Tenga
Cons: C Canna (1)
MUNSTER: M Haley; D Sweetnam, D Goggin, R Scannell, A Wootton; JJ Hanrahan, A Mathewson; J Loughman, R Marshall, S Archer; F Wycherley, D O'Shea; J O'Donoghue, C Cloete, CJ Stander.
Replacements: C Farrell for Wootton (45 mins), T Bleyendaal for Hanrahan (51 mins), N Scannell for Marshall (54 mins), J Ryan for Archer (54 mins), J Kleyn for O'Shea (54 mins), A Botha for Cloete (68 mins), L O'Connor for Loughman (71 mins), D Williams for Mathewson (77 mins).
ZEBRE: E Padovani; G Di Giulio, G Bisgeni, T Boni, J Elliott; C Canna, G Palazzani; A Lovotti, O Fabiani, R Tenga; D Sisi, G Biagi; M Mbanda, J Tuivaiti, R Giammarioli.
Replacements: F Brummer for Canna (48 mins), L Luus for Fabiana (52 mins), M Bellini for Padovani (52 mins), M Cicciolli for Tenga (59 mins), M Violi for Palazzani (64 mins), D Rimpelli for Fabiani (66 mins), L Krumov for Biagi (68 mins), A Tauyavuca for Tuivaiti (77 mins).
Referee: Dan Jones (Wales).