Monday 23 April 2018

Earls returns as Munster stroll to victory in Parma

Zebre 7 Munster31

Munster's Felix Jones attempts to break the Zebre defense
Munster's Felix Jones attempts to break the Zebre defense
Duncan Williams, Munster, issues instructions during a scrum
Felix Jones, Munster, is tackled by Marco Bortolami and Andries Van Schalkwyk, Zebre

John Fallon

Keith Earls made his first appearance of the season and Irish prop James Cronin also returned from injury to give Munster a timely boost as they prepare to face Saracens in the Champions Cup next weekend.

And Munster will go into the break buoyed by a bonus-point win at Stadio XXV Aprile which was wrapped up with an accomplished opening-half display which gets their Pro12 campaign back on track after a couple of wobbles on their travels recently.

Munster knew that any worthwhile threat would come from Zebre early on but Anthony Foley's men stamped their authority from the outset and had the game wrapped up by the interval when they led 24-0.

It was an accomplished display against a Zebre side in freefall and their early-season promise has given way to four successive league defeats and they may well stay rooted to the foot of the table for the remainder of the season.

Foley will be quick to point that out to his men as they now turn their attentions to Saracens at Allianz Park next Saturday when they will hope to keep their season alive on two fronts.

Ian Keatley crowned his contract extension - and big endorsement from Foley - by controlling the game from the outset and after slotting an early penalty he produced the key link in the opening try, offloading superbly inside the 22 for Pat Howard to send Felix Jones over for his first try of the season.

It was obvious Munster were going for the kill early, opting for the corner with an easy penalty when they were 10-0 in front, but they lost the lineout and Zebre cleared their lines.

But it was all one-way traffic and Munster wrapped up with two tries in four minutes.

CJ Stander got the first with a tapped free for a scrum infringement and then Conor Murray finished after the Northampton-bound JJ Hanrahan did well to keep the opportunity alive.

However, Murray suffered a blow to the head/neck area and was immediately withdrawn but he came back out for the start of the second half.

It took Zebre 37 minutes to get into the Munster 22 but when they opted for scrums off two penalties they found the visiting pack fired-up and the chance was lost for the Italians.

Munster, who failed to score in the second half of their last two away defeats to Connacht and Glasgow, wasted little time in correcting that yesterday and wrapped up the bonus point four minutes after the restart. Zebre actually started the second period going forward but Munster turned over possession inside their own 22 and broke at pace with Ronan O'Mahony chipping ahead and the ball bounced kindly for Simon Zebo to collect and race in. Keatley added the points to make it 31-0.

Inevitably, with the bonus point in the bag and both sides emptying their benches, the sting went out of the Munster performance. James Cronin was drafted in and showed no ill-effects of the shoulder injury which sidelined him in recent weeks while the biggest cheer of the day was reserved for Keith Earls when he was introduced after 54 minutes.

He was brought in on the wing for Ronan O'Mahony for his first action since last May and while he saw little of the ball yesterday he looked sharp and hungry in anything he did.

Zebre managed to hit back with a try from replacement prop Oliviero Fabiani to give the home crowd something to shout about as freezing temperatures set in once the sunshine disappeared.

Munster finished on the front foot but were unable to extend their lead and will now turn all their attentions to Saracens next Saturday.

Scorers - Zebre: O Fabiani try, L Irquera con. Munster: F Jones, CJ Stander, C Murray, S Zebo tries; I Keatley 4 cons, 1 pen.

Zebre: D Odiete; G Venditti (G Palazzani 41), T Iannone, K Haimona (L Orquera 56), L Sarto; E Padovani, B Leonard; A de Marchi (L Leibson 65), A Manici (O Fabiani 24), L Redolfini (D Chistolini 55); Q Geldenhuys, M Bortolami (V Bernabo 54); F Cristiano, M Bergamasco (J Sarto 54), A van Schalkwyk.

Munster: F Jones; R O'Mahony (K Earls 54), P Howard, JJ Hanrahan, S Zebo; I Keatley (J Murphy 70), C Murray (D Williams 59); E Guinazu (J Cronin 49), K O'Byrne (N Scannell 49), S Archer; D Foley, B Holland (Donncha O'Callaghan 62); Dave O'Callaghan, P O'Mahony (P Butler 65), CJ Stander.

Referee: I Davies (WRU)

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