Part one of Munster’s mission is complete but things get tricky from here.
While beating Perpignan at home was always a key component of Rob Penney’s December mission but the toughest task always lay in the Stade Aime Giral in six days time.
And the province face making the trip without Conor Murray who injured his knee during the first half, while Ian Keatley limped off with an apparent hamstring strain after 50 minutes.
Still, a five-try bonus point win in front of 23,615 fans was just what the doctor ordered and by far the province's most convincing European performance this season.
The early kick-off was a worry but when Perpignan began the game kicking loosely and Munster needed no second invitation to get into the game and they’d crossed for their first try within three minutes.
Johne Murphy’s opening minute chip had just gone too long for Felix Jones when James Hook sent a wobbly effort down the winger’s throat and he countered, finding Conor Murray who returned the favour and the Kildare man drew Joffrey Michel and sent Sean Dougall under the posts.
Ian Keatley converted and added a penalty and, while Munster weren’t having it all their own way as their visitors looked to attack at every opportunity, the hosts managed to execute big plays at the right times with Keith Earls forcing a turnover that led to Jones failing to get on the end of a neat Keatley cross-kick from a quick lineout throw.
Peter O’Mahony was the next to intervene as Perpignan approached the Munster line, forcing a great turnover that led to Damien Varley charging up the left but ignoring Murray on his shoulder. The hooker took contact and Munster went wide, with Earls stepping inside the cover but his try-scoring pass to Murray was loose and the move broke down.
It was rip-roaring stuff and the French side were next to have a go as winger Sofiane Guitone fielded a Keatley kick and neatly stepped out of Murphy’s grasp to start a counter that saw Fijian Wiatisoni Votu charge up the left and find hooker Romain Terrain in space only for Keatley to make the covering tackle.
Having escaped that scare, Munster found themselves in trouble again when the out-half’s pass went to ground and James Hook kicked ahead and Guitone hacked it on. Murphy gave chase and seemed to interfere with his opposite number before pouncing on the loose ball.
Back came the hosts immediately as Earls raced up the right and took contact before Keatley spread the ball right and Lauala chipped ahead as Luke Charteris hit him late. Greg Garner gave the penalty and the fly-half went to touch, Varley’s throw went long but O’Mahony cleaned up and a couple of carries later Dave Kilcoyne burrowed over.
Keatley missed the conversion, but he made no mistake from his next effort from the touchline as he slotted the extras after a brilliant James Coughlan turnover was scooped up by Earls who raced 60m over to score.
Hook missed a penalty attempt to bring the half to a close, but with both sides down an important man after the exits of Murray and Perpignan fly-half Camille Lopez, the Welsh full-back made no mistake when handed the opportunity five minutes after the restart to make it 22-3.
Keatley then exited with a limp as JJ Hanrahan was given a half-an-hour to manufacture a try but again it was the visitors who went close as a wonderful piece of continuity play between Michel, Votu and Tom Ecochard set up Charteris but Dougall chased down the giant second row and his off-load to Guitone was slightly forward according to the television match official.
Back came Munster and although Jones’ march was halted up the right, Jean Pierre Perez knocked on and gave the Reds perfect field position.
Penney sent on both replacement props and they held firm, Earls, O’Mahony and O’Connell carried deep into Perpignan territory and Perpignan infringed. Hanrahan went for the corner and, the lineout maul was hauled down and Munster went again. Dougall did brilliantly to field the throw at the tail and when Kisi Pulu hauled the maul down inches from the line Greg Garner gave the penalty try and sent the Tongan to the sin-bin as Hanrahan converted.
With the bonus point secured, it was time to rest some big guns and finish the job as Duncan Casey was introduced for his debut and his throw to fellow sub CJ Stander almost set up a second try for Earls but James Downey’s pass was adjudged forward.
With tighthead Jean Baptiste Custoja operating on the loosehead side in Pulu’s absence, Munster won a penalty at the scrum and attacked. O’Connell, Hanrahan and Stander had goes but eventually Perpignan infringed again. O’Connell went for the scrum and Munster marched over for Coughlan to touch down.
Hanrahan converted and Munster relaxed enough to allow Michel in for a late score. It wouldn’t matter, next week’s return was already on Munster’s minds.
MUNSTER -- F Jones (D Hurley 62); K Earls, C Laulala, J Downey, J Murphy; I Keatley (JJ Hanrahan 49), C Murray (C Sheridan 18); D Kilcoyne (J Cronin 60), D Varley (D Casey 72), S Archer (BJ Botha 60); D O’Callaghan (B Holland 65), P O’Connell; P O’Mahony (capt) (CJ Stander 72), S Dougall, J Coughlan.
PERPIGNAN – J Hook (capt); J Michel, T Benvenutti (R Haughton 72), W Votu, S Guitoune; C Lopez, T Ecochard (D Duvenage 57); S Taofifenua (K Pulu 47), R Terrain (M Delonca 60), P Ion; L Charteris, G Vilaceca (S Vahaamahina 53); JP Perez (D Leo 63), A Strokosch, J Puril.
Referee: G Garner (RFU)