Munster break Zebre resistance in second half

Munster keep pressure on Edinburgh at top of Conference B

Zebre 0 Munster 28

Munster produced a strong second-half performance to earn a bonus point victory over 14-man Zebre at Stadio Giovanni Mari in Milan on Friday night.

Coming on the heels of last week's facile win against Southern Kings, this result keeps Johan van Graan's men firmly in the hunt for a Pro14 playoff spot. Though they had to be content with a 7-0 buffer at the break, tries courtesy of JJ Hanrahan, Rory Scannell and the returning Darren Sweetnam ensured Munster remain just three points adrift of Conference B leaders Edinburgh.

The hosts suffered a hammer blow with just 10 minutes on the clock as winger Pierre Bruno was red-carded for leading with his elbow into the chin of Munster flanker Chris Cloete.

Their opponents immediately took advantage of the additional space with Calvin Nash applying downward pressure to Craig Casey's enticing kick through to claim his second try in as many games. Hanrahan was on hand to add the conversion, offering Munster an ideal platform.

Yet instead of pushing on for the remainder of the period, the southern province found themselves camped inside their own half for large stretches. Zebre centre Tommaso Boni looked set to break over the line on the first-quarter mark only for the retreating Munster defence to force him into touch.

Having survived that let-off, the visitors suffered a significant set-back when captain Niall Scannell departed the field through injury in the 21st minute. In his absence, Scannell's older brother Rory assumed leadership duties for the reds.

Much like Zebre's drab 3-0 defeat to Leinster last October, clear-cut opportunities were proving few and far between. Munster did create momentum in the wide channels towards the end of the half, though Mike Haley was ultimately squeezed out by the committed Zebre defence.

While Munster brought a seven-point cushion into the interval, it was a far from vintage display in the opening 40 minutes and despite being a man down Zebre had enjoyed 70 pre cent possession.

However, the home team's numerical deficiency was always going to count against them and Munster effectively sealed their win with a powerful second-quarter scoring blitz. Following an extended spell inside the Zebre 22, replacement scrumhalf Neil Cronin released Hanrahan for a clinical finish.

After supplying the extras, the Kerry native then unleashed a superb skip pass for Scannell to waltz through for Munster's third try on 57 minutes. Hanrahan, who has proven to be an able deputy for injured Joey Carbery and Tyler Bleyendaal, added an outstanding touchline conversion.

Initially named on the bench following a four month lay-off, Sweetnam was promoting to the starting line-up when Shane Daly injured himself in the warm-up. The former Cork hurler latched on to another inch-perfect Hanrahan pass with five minutes remaining to seal maximum points on the road for Munster.

Zebre: J Laloifi; P Balekana, J Elliott, T Boni, P Bruno; F Brummer, J Renton; D Rimepelli, M Ceciliani, E Bello; M Kearney, I Nagle; M Mbandà, J Tuivaiti, R Giammarioli. Replacements: N Casilio for Renton (51 mins), G Biagi for Nagle (54), R Burgnara for Rimepelli, E Lucchin for Balekana, L Krumov for Tuivaiti (all 56), M Luccardi for Ceciliani, M Nocera for Bello (both 63), P Pescetto for Brummer (64).

Munster: M Haley; C Nash, S Arnold, R Scannell, D Sweetnam; JJ Hanrahan, C Casey; J Cronin, N Scannell, J Ryan; F Wycherley, D O'Shea; A Botha, C Cloete, J O'Sullivan. Replacements: K O'Byrne for N Scannell (21 mins), N Cronin for Casey (45), J Loughman for Cronin, S Archer for Ryan (both 49), D Goggin for Arnold (63), G Coombes for O'Shea, T O'Donnell for Botha (both 64), J Flannery for Sweetnam (75).

Referee: D Jones (WRU).