Munster slay Dragons to book home semi-final with Ospreys
Munster Newport 50 Gwent Dragons 27
EIGHT-TRY Munster booked themselves a home semi-final against after Ospreys failed to match their spanking Irish Independent Park bonus point win meaning the sides will meet next Saturday afternoon in Thomond Park.
Ulster's late collapse means they must return to Glasgow for their semi-final tie next Friday evening; no side has ever won an away tie since play-offs were introduced.
Connacht did Munster a favour in denying Ospreys the five match points they needed for a home semi-final.
Connacht themselves now have a Champions Cup play-off against Gloucester after Leinster did them a favour by winning in Edinburgh.
This was the Guiness Pro12's version of Super Saturday and some of the rugby resembled the sparkling weather as Munster chased the necessary bonus point from the off and, aside from an early wobble, did so convincingly.
The nerves extended to the field when Munster were done at a breakdown after a breakdown in communication between Ian Keatley and Andrew Smith; the Australian buried the ball after his out-half's poor pass and Jason Tovey kicked the three pointer with less than two minutes gone.
Beneath azure skies, Munster responded immediately and the aforementioned pair atoned wonderfully, Keatley setting Smith on a mazy dash to the line.
Paul O'Connell's attempted chargedown of Dorian Jones' exit kick was crucial to Munster reclaiming the restart; Keatley, playing his 100th game for Munster, kicked the conversion. 7-3.
Dragons hit back, Toby Faletau barging - fairly, according to TMO Kevin Beggs - Keith Earls out of the way after a poor Conor Murray box-kick, before the Welsh giant released late replacement winger Ashton Hewitt for the try for a 10-7 lead.
There were just seven minutes gone.
In what was developing into a sister version of the extraordinary Six Nations finale, Munster dismissed their camp's pre-match talk of sticking to the process by then spurning an eminently kickable penalty.
And so, Keatley kicked to the corner, an effortless maul was concocted, CJ Stander emerged from the forest of bodies with the pill and with it a Munster lead of 14-10.
There were just nine minutes gone. It was like watching Sevens. Dragons were at sixes and sevens.
When Munster won a scrum penalty, Keatley spurned the kick at goal again and this time Murray bundled over from close range in the 17th minute after a maul was initially quelled.
When Dragons' lock Hugh Gustafson was binned for his side's repeated infringements close in, Munster sensed blood from close range yet again, Ireland's scrum-half repeating the trick with a surge to the line.
Keatley was kicking everything but the bottom line was that Munster had done their business; now they had to rely on results elsewhere.
Predictably, the second quarter was a shoddy affair as Munster released the pressure somewhat as scores elsewhere briefly propelled them to the top of the standings; by the break, a Thomond date against Glasgow seemed a likely prospect.
Munster recovered their poise by the end of the half though and arguably the biggest cheer of the afternoon arrived when Paul O'Connell emerged from the day's most potent image; the close-in driven maul, to score his side's fifth try in added time.
Keatley missed his first conversion of the day but, with transistors pinned to ears and smartphones following events elsewhere, few quibbled at the half-time 33-10 lead.
Two minutes into the second-half, the floodgates remained firmly ajar; Keith Earls strolled down the right wing for his sixth try in seven games while Keatley kicked his fifth of six conversions for 40-10.
Dragons were enjoying the party, occasionally, scoring a second try through the talented Tyler Morgan after a fine run and off-load from Jones in the 51st minute.
Murray was enjoying it more, sealing his hat-trick with his side's seventh try of the afternoon; JJ Hanrahan, definitely enjoying his Cork swansong, missed the conversion.
Lloyd Fairbreather scored Dragons' third try as many of the crowd were still saluting the departure of Paul O'Connell.
Ronan O'Mahony, one of Munster's emerging, confident stars, scored a scintillating late try to complete the scoring and enable his sides to notch the half-century while Jack Dixon replied for Dragons in injury-time.
Munster - F Jones; K Earls (A Conway 66), A Smith, D Hurley (c), R O'Mahony; I Keatley (JJ Hanrahan 55), C Murray (D Williams 68); J Ryan (D Kilcoyne 62), E Guinazu (N Scannell 62), BJ Botha (S Archer 65), B Holland, P O'Connell (J O'Donoghue 70), D Ryan, P Butler, CJ Stander (S Dougall 70).
Newport Gwent Dragons - J Tovey (G Rhys Jones 71); T Prydie, T Morgan (B Nightingale 64), J Dixon, A Hewitt; D Jones, J Evans (R Rees 62); B Stankovich (P Price 65), H Gustafson (R Buckley 64), B Harris (L Fairbrother 65), C Hill (M Screech 58), R Landman (c), N Crosswell (R Buckley 23-31), N Cudd, T Faletau.
Ref - B Whitehouse (WRU).