Munster crush Blues to widen gap at summit
Munster's quest for a first Pro12 crown in three seasons continues to gather pace after they eased to a bonus-point victory at Cardiff Blues.
The two-week break for international action showed no signs of slowing their progress as tries from Felix Jones, captain Damien Varley, James Cronin and Andrew Conway, together with 11 points from the boot of JJ Hanrahan, saw them make it five wins in a row in the league and move four points clear at the top.
On paper at least, the latest instalment of league action presented a far less demanding challenge than the three previous rounds, when Munster saw off the Ospreys, Glasgow and Leinster, and that proved to be the case as they effectively put the game to bed with three tries inside the opening 31 minutes, before sewing up maximum points just 120 seconds after the interval.
After a slow start in which they failed to get hands on the ball for the first five minutes and conceded a 13th-minute penalty to Simon Humberstone, Munster took control thanks to a moment of magic from Casey Laulala. The New Zealander stepped outside opposite number Gavin Evans following a free kick just inside the Blues' half before producing the deftest of offloads to Jones, who made light work of the covering defence for a fine score with 16 minutes on the clock.
Hanrahan, who finished with a 100 per cent kicking record, sent over the simple extras to make it 7-3 and it was all Munster for the remainder of the half as they twice went close to scoring before Varley grabbed a deserved second try after 26 minutes.
Hanrahan's beautifully weighted grubber kick was picked up by Johne Murphy on the left wing but his inside pass hit Blues flanker Andries Pretorius rather than finding CJ Stander with a free run to the line. Laulala then created more mayhem deep in Blues territory but the move eventually came to nothing when his outhalf and skipper were penalised for obstruction.
Munster did get the reward for their complete territorial dominance moments later, though, as Varley powered straight through the middle of a ruck before making light work of scrum-half Lewis Jones' attempted tackle.
Hanrahan added the extras to make it 14-3 and things soon got even better for Munster when Cronin crossed on the half-hour. Cathal Sheridan's charge-down put Munster on the front foot deep in the Blues' '22', with Cronin picking up Hanrahan's long pass on the bounce to canter over unopposed.
A third straight conversion and a 38th-minute penalty from Hanrahan ensured the game was as good as over by half-time as Munster led 24-3.
Any hopes the Blues held of producing a stunning second-half comeback were blown out of the water just two minutes after the restart as Conway sprinted clear for Munster's bonus-point score.
Hanrahan made it five from five from the tee with his most difficult conversion to date, but Stander's yellow card for repeated Munster infringements led to a close-range try for Blues hooker Kristian Dacey after 48 minutes, with Humberstone's conversion cutting the gap to 31-10.
Much of what followed was almost irrelevant, with neither side coming close to altering the scoreboard, even after Mike Sherry saw yellow with 10 minutes left to play.
Scorers – Cardiff: S Humberstone con, pen; K Dacey try. Munster: F Jones, D Varley, J Cronin, A Conway try each; JJ Hanrahan 4 cons, pen.
Cardiff Blues: T Williams; R Smith, G Evans (G Davies 41), D Hewitt, C Czekaj; S Humberstone, L Jones (T Williams 75); S Hobbs (c) (T Davies 74), K Dacey (R Williams 58), T Filise (B Bourrust 64); M Cook, J Down; A Pretorius (R Watts-Jones 58), J Navidi, R Copeland (L Hamilton 74)
Munster: F Jones; A Conway (D Hurley 56), C Laulala, I Dineen, J Murphy; JJ Hanrahan (J Holland 75), C Sheridan (D Williams 62); J Cronin (D Kilcoyne 63), D Varley (M Sherry 65), BJ Botha (S Archer 63); D Foley (DF O'Callaghan 41), B Holland; D O'Callaghan (J Coughlan 58), S Dougall, CJ Stander (D Varley 71)
Referee: D Wilkinson (Ireland)