Munster 21 Zebre 5
When the fixtures were announced you looked at the decision to pitch this game in Musgrave Park and reckoned it suited Munster’s well-established pecking order of big games in Limerick, lesser games in Cork - a thorn in the side of the rugby folk in the far south.
By the time Munster were preparing for this last week, its importance had gone up a few notches.
Pity then it was such a woeful non-event, with the home team struggling for any rhythm or direction for the third time in a row, and missing a bonus point. By no means are they making it up as they go along, rather it’s made up in advance but then the stitching comes undone when any stress is applied.
Initially the crowd seemed okay with this, maybe figuring Zebre’s awfulness was muddying the water. Their line out was a rough copy of Connacht’s from the previous night in Pretoria, and they had lost both centres by the half hour mark.
It’s worth pointing out that both were injured rather than early leavers through the boredom of it all. Between referrals to the TMO and running repairs for players who looked like they should have been carted off there and then, this game tore the backside out of the relationship between actual time and ball in play time.
So when referee AJ Jacobs blew for the end to the first half we were five minutes off the hour mark. That blast was preceded by Craig Casey collecting the eighth lost Zebre lineout, dinking it into touch, and running towards the changing room before he could be implicated in what had gone before.
In fairness to Casey, winning his 50th cap in red, he was sharp and accurate in most things, but it was an awful half of rugby, and would be followed by much the same. Given the carnage in the Zebre structure there was no issue about Munster winning.
They will probably put forward the stop-start nature of the game as the main reason they didn’t take the bonus point with them, but it went a bit deeper than that: on a lovely autumn evening their basic handling and communication was a mile off.
If the Zebre lineout was a virtual comedy act then at least Munster’s was capable of delivering on the scoreboard. Niall Scannell got over directly off a maul for the first; Keynan Knox scored when he was the second one-out carrier off another lineout maul; then Scannell got over for a second after the TMO had ruled out a claim by Jack O’Donoghue.
For Zebre the only good news was that with Gabriele Venditti in the bin in the first half, they managed not to concede a point. In the previous two rounds of this competition the Italian side ran in 29 and 37 points respectively in losing to Leinster and the Sharks. With zero to show for the first half, they faced a step climb for the second.
Even so, they were first out of the blocks with Lorenzo getting a fortuitous bounce, the move having started with a dodgy looking pass. Could we be looking at a comeback to change the mood from unease to open native unrest?
It seemed possible given Munster’s inability to call the right shot. So as a shape unfolded but the defensive picture changed, the men in red couldn’t get enough lads on the same page to take advantage. So even though the back three did plenty of good things - especially Mike Haley and Patrick Campbell - the move would break down elsewhere for no good reason.
A perfect example came on the run-in, with the home team looking acutely uncomfortable. Haley had countered well again and somehow Munster had kept the ball alive only for Peter O’Mahony - he looked sluggish by that point - to spill the ball under moderate pressure. He had been central to picking off Zebre’s lineout when it was going through its circus act phase before the break, but his job extends beyond that.
Soon enough the focus shifted to the Munster end of the field where Zebre fancied their chances of at least getting the last score, even if the clawing back of a bonus point was beyond them. They came up short but then that was expected, despite their positive form to this point.
Their hosts, meanwhile, have a heavier weight to carry. Judging by how laboured they look on the field, it has slowed them almost to a standstill. Connacht, in the basement themselves at the minute, will fancy their chances in Galway on Friday night.
Munster: M Haley 6; C Philips 5, M Fekitoa 4, D Goggin 4 (R Scannell 60, 4), P Campbell 6; B Healy 5 (J Carbery 50, 6), C Casey 6 (C Murray 50, 5); D Kilcoyne 4 (J Loughman 50, 4), N Scannell 6 (S Buckley 50, 6), K Knox 5 (S Archer 47, 4), F Wycherley 4 (E Edogbo 58, 5), T Beirne 5, J O’Donoghue 6, J O’Sullivan 4 (R Quinn 74), P O’Mahony (capt) 4
Zebre: R Kriel; P Bruno, E Cronje (F Smith 13; N Casilo 37 HIA), E Lucchin (capt) (L Pani 31), J Trulla; T Eden, A Fusco; J Pitinari (L Rizzoli 53), G Ribaldi (L Bigi ht), I Neculai (M Nocera 53) G Venditti (27-37), L Krumov, D Ruggeri, I Fox-Matamua (J Furno 59), MJ Pelser (J Bianchi ht)
Referee: AJ Jacobs (SA)