It may have been an August preseason encounter but one could be forgiven for thinking it was late November with unseasonable wintry conditions greeting the 2,300-plus support base in East Munster tonight for the first round of the Kearys Renault Series.
The gale force winds and rain dictated matters on the field as it played out to be a stop start affair with opportunities for running rugby few and far between, however a solid Munster performance provided Rassie Erasmus with a 17 nil victory, a first in his role as Director of Rugby.
In the opening forty Munster played into the wind with outhalf Ian Keatley growing into the role, showing his experience with his overall game management while adapting to the conditions favourably. It was the number 10’s well timed grubber kicks that provided the platform for two of Munster’s tries, the first coming from Man of the Match Darren Sweetnam who was deservedly rewarded for a massive work rate across the park tonight, netting a brace.
Keatley instigated the opening try with the first kick ahead finding lively centre Colm O’Shea. He broke the tackle before a second Keatley kick, this time deeper into the opposition 22, wasn’t dealt with by Zebre winger Venditti, and Sweetnam pounced for the opening try.
A period of sustained Zebre pressure followed and Munster closed out the half deep inside their own 22, however the defence was solid and the visitors were unable to capitalise, the score remaining 5 nil in Munster’s favour at the break.
While Keatley’s opening conversion attempt fell afoul of the gale force winds in the first half, he was on the money in adding the extras on 54 minutes after Ronan O’Mahony crossed for Munster’s second. A Keatley grubber off the back of a solid Munster scrum was beautifully weighted for the oncoming O’Mahony and Munster were out to a 12-0 lead.
Excellent running and hands saw Munster make it three tries, local man Jack O’Donoghue making the initial headway before debutant academy player Dan Goggin hit the gap and found Sweetnam on his right for the Corkman’s second of the night. Keatley was unable to add the extras.
Solid at set-piece and firm in defence all game, Munster did well to finish out the game strongly, maintaining most of the late possession and keeping the hugely physical Italians scoreless all game.
Tonight’s game saw a total of 12 players make the senior debuts for the province. Peter McCabe, new senior recruits John Andress and Darren O’Shea, academy players Gavin Coombes, Shane Daly, Calvin Nash, Brian Scott, Ollie Lyons and Dan Goggin, sub academy player Conor Fitzgerald and club representatives Colm O’Shea (Clontarf) and John Poland (Cork Con) all seeing game time.
Erasmus confirmed Dave Foley was the only match casualty for now, with the lock reporting a back spasm. He will be reviewed across the coming days.
Munster: Stephen Fitzgerald (McMahon 71); Darren Sweetnam (Nash 71), Cian Bohane (Daly), Colm O'Shea (Goggin 50), Ronan O'Mahony; Ian Keatley (C Fitzgerald 71), Duncan Williams (Poland 71); John Ryan (McCabe 64), Niall Scannell (O’Byrne 64), Stephen Archer (Brian Scott H/T (Andress 64/78)); John Madigan (Dave Foley H/T (O’Callaghan 73)), Billy Holland Capt., Dave O'Callaghan (O’Shea 50), Conor Oliver (Lyons 71), Jack O'Donoghue (Coombes 71).
Referee: Gary Conway