Reds regain momentum but fadeouts give Foley a headache
Zebre 7 Munster 31
Munster arrived back home yesterday evening after a gruelling four-day trip to Italy yielded the expected bonus-point win, but their fadeout again in the second half is becoming a cause for concern.
Munster, who failed to score in the second half of their away losses to Glasgow and Connacht, faltered again after the break with Simon Zebo's try four minutes after the restart their only score of the half.
"It is something that we need to look into, the second half. But in fairness to Zebre they came out in the second half and for four or five minutes we didn't touch the ball. It was good for them and provided an excellent contest for us," said Munster coach Anthony Foley.
His men did all that was required of them and they played some good rugby in the opening half with Ian Keatley running the show at out-half and CJ Stander leading a pack which dominated throughout.
There were flashes of what they will lose when JJ Hanrahan will depart but they lacked a cutting edge in midfield in the second half and Saracens won't exactly be shaking in their boots when they trawl through the footage.
What they will notice, though, is the hunger shown by Keith Earls as he finally put his injury nightmare behind him to make an appearance off the bench in the second half. And Irish prop James Cronin also showed good form on his return from a shoulder injury and Foley will welcome having the extra selection options to ponder as he prepares for the Saracens clash on Saturday.
"It was good to see Earlsy flying into a few tackles and Jamesie being his robust self out there. It gives the whole squad a massive lift to have quality players coming back of that calibre.
"Two boys who had been training hard in the background. It was a great opportunity for them to throw their hat in the ring particularly with next week in mind. And it was great for them to get a good hit-out out there, both of them to get over 20 minutes in the second half," he added.
Foley said that Conor Murray, who missed the Connacht game, should be fine after going off when he smashed head-first into a post scoring a try, but he returned for the start of the second half and came through.
"He got a bang on the neck on the way to scoring the try but he got back out there and went again and he is okay. We have come away relatively unscathed in terms of injuries.
"We will need to see where other fellas are. At the moment we have shipped a lot of injuries this year. We want to make sure we have the best 23 going out next week," added Foley.
Keatley led the way in the opening half and Stander produced a fourth man of the match performance as they wrapped up the issue by half-time when they opened up a 24-0 lead.
Keatley set up Felix Jones for the opening try which pushed them 10-0 ahead and they never looked back.
Stander got the second from a tap and go free-kick and then Murray barged over to leave it 24-0 at the break.
Murray went off when he was injured but returned at the start of the second half when Zebo secured the bonus point shortly after a good chip from Ronan O'Mahony in a counter-attack.
The whole focus now switches to Saracens next week when their tenuous Champions Cup hopes will be put on the line. They need to get a result and then deal with Sale Sharks the following week. Securing qualification this time round at Thomond Park would rank up there with any of their other great escapes after the double loss to Clermont, but Foley is not thinking that far ahead.
"We are not looking at two weeks. We are looking at Saracens, it is going to be a huge game for us and it is important that we are going over there in the right frame of mind and give ourselves a chance.
"But I'm happy with the result, happy with the five points, getting the bonus point against the run of play in the second half. But I thought we did enough in the first-half to warrant a result. It is good to get back on the winning ways.
"We wanted to build the game on pace and momentum and we achieved that. We were fortunate enough to get a couple of good scores and maintain momentum on the game.
"Unfortunately, we didn't do that in the second half and it became a dour affair to be honest.
"We wanted to get momentum back after the Sportsground last week. We felt that we needed to get a performance in - we saw that in bits and pieces in this one," added the Munster coach.
Delivering it for 80 minutes will surely be the mantra all this week as they head to London looking for the win which will re-ignite their season and not confine themselves solely to the league for the next four months.
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.
Ref - I Davies (WRU)