Sunday 30 April 2017

O'Connell return the perfect boost for high-flying Munster

JOHN FALLON at Thomond Park

Munster 16

Cardiff Blues 9

A double boost for Munster at Thomond Park last night as they head into their back-to-back date with the Ospreys in the Heineken Cup.

This win extends their lead at the top of the Magners League table, but the biggest cheer of the night came after 55 minutes when Paul O'Connell made his long-awaited return to the red jersey.

It was his first appearance for Munster since January 22 and the inspirational lock slotted into the action with ease after being out since March with that groin injury which has plagued him.

"I have a long way to go still but I know it's great to have taken the initial steps and hopefully I can drive on from here," O'Connell said.

"Getting Paul some game time was important for us and it was a big positive," added Munster coach Tony McGahan. "It was also very important to get the win and now we can look to the Ospreys and concentrate on that."

John Hayes and Paul Warwick were also introduced as Munster were forced to dig deep to ensure that Cardiff failed to get their first ever win at Thomond Park.

At one stage it seemed that the dense fog that shrouded the stadium might force the game to be abandoned, but Alain Rolland was content to let it proceed.

Munster trailed 6-3 at the end of a frustrating opening half, where they had the majority of the possession but struggled to break down a disciplined Cardiff defence.

But the pace of the game never rose above the mediocre and the Welsh side were rarely threatened, as Munster failed to build the phases in the Cardiff half.

Indeed, it looked like Munster were in serious trouble when tighthead prop Tony Buckley was yellow-carded for killing the ball under his own posts and Dan Parks slotted his second penalty of the day for a 6-0 lead 10 minutes from the break.

But that was the only score Munster conceded with a man in the bin and they finally got off the mark two minutes from the break when Ronan O'Gara converted a 30-metre penalty after being taken out late by Cardiff sub Ben White.

Earlier, O'Gara had opted for the left corner with a seventh-minute penalty but this show of intent was not matched by action as Cardiff lock Michael Paterson helped clear the danger.

Cardiff, winners of five of their last seven away matches in the Magners League, enjoyed a promising start when Parks landed a fine penalty from 40 metres on the left wing.

The bounce of the ball rarely went Munster's way, something emphasised after 16 minutes when a superb cross-field kick from O'Gara skewed into touch just when it seemed Denis Hurley would collect and score.

But that was a rare moment in attacking rugby from either side in the opening half and Cardiff were unfortunate not to increase their lead before the break, but Parks was off target with a long-range drop-goal.

Cardiff came out of the blocks at the start of the second half and it took a despairing tackle from Mick O'Driscoll, when he managed to get his leg under the ball as Tom Shanklin touched down in the right corner, to prevent the opening try of the match.

But Munster's response was superb and quickly recycled ball saw Cardiff forced on to the back foot from a superb Lifeimi Mafi surge, and while Johne Murphy's subsequent drive was held up, Alan Quinlan picked and drove through Gethin Jenkins' tackle for the opening try.

O'Gara added the extras to make it 10-6 as Munster led for the first time and they extended their lead two minutes later when O'Gara made no mistake with a penalty from 25 metres on the right.

Then came O'Connell's long awaited return and the Lions skipper announced his arrival by winning a line-out straight after coming on for Donncha O'Callaghan.

But Cardiff did not roll over easily and another penalty from Parks on the hour from 22 metres ensured Munster would need to remain honest to the end. The Welsh would have grabbed a couple of tries on another day and were not shy about running from deep but Munster kept their shape and hit back.

It seemed that the game might not finish, as dense fog descended on the ground for the final 10 minutes, but Munster pushed on and sealed the deal in the closing minutes.

They were unable to get a clinching try but O'Gara put seven between them with a penalty in front of the posts after Parks saw another drop-goal attempt fly the wrong side of the left post, but they left with a deserved bonus point.

Scorers -- Munster: Quinlan try, O'Gara 3 pens, con. Cardiff Blues: Parks 3 pens

Munster: J Murphy; L Mafi (P Warwick 63), K Earls, S Tuitupou, D Hurley; R O'Gara, P Stringer (T O'Leary 48); W du Preez (D Ryan 79), D Varley (M Sherry 70), T Buckley (J Hayes 61); M O'Driscoll, D O'Callaghan (P O'Connell 55); A Quinlan, N Ronan (D Wallace 48), D Leamy

Cardiff Blues: C Czekaj; R Mustoe, C Laulala, T Shanklin, G Evans; D Parks, R Rees; G Jenkins, G Williams, T Filise; M Paterson, P Tito; M Molitika, S Warburton (B White 32) X Rush

Referee: A Rolland (IRFU)

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