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Dublin: 3 °C Friday 19 January, 2018
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Four-try Munster produce their European best to freeze Leicester out in big win

Johann van Graan’s first European game in charge saw his side seize control of their pool.

Munster celebrate Zebo's try.
Munster celebrate Zebo's try.
Image: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Munster 33

Leicester Tigers 10

Ryan Bailey reports from Thomond Park

WELCOME TO LIMERICK, Johann.

This was Munster at their very best as they produced a clinical performance brimming with intent, aggression and conviction to seize complete control of Pool 4 by way of inflicting another Thomond Park humiliation on a poor Leicester side.

The new head coach could hardly have asked for anymore on his first visit to this place. To a man, Munster were outstanding as they showed clarity and conviction in wearing the visitors down and overpowering them at both the breakdown and the set-piece.

In every department, the southern province were superior and once Rhys Marshall powered over from close range at the end of the first quarter, the outcome of this contest was never in doubt. Munster bullied the Tigers into submission.

The try-scorers — Marshall, Simon Zebo, Peter O’Mahony and Chris Cloete — were all imperious with Munster dominant in pretty much every facet, no more so than at the scrum and line-out as they consistently stole Tigers possession and thwarted their attempts to make a contest of this old-age battle of two European heavyweights.

And this was a night of redemption for Ian Keatley, who two years ago made the same walk to a smattering of boos. Tonight, he was given a standing ovation as he was replaced late on by JJ Hanrahan. Everything he did was faultless, everything Munster did was pretty much faultless.

Sam Arnold, on his European debut for Munster, was the sponsor’s man of the match but any of his team-mates would have been deserving winners with Marshall, Cloete and Andrew Conway all having a stormer.

Unfortunately for Conway his evening ended prematurely when he was helped gingerly from the field following a nasty head clash with Telusa Veainu. It was the only blemish on an otherwise perfect evening’s work.

This win, coupled with Racing 92′s defeat to Castres earlier, leaves Munster sitting in the box seat for qualification and in pole position to secure a lucrative and advantageous Thomond Park quarter.

Peter O’Mahony celebrates scoring a try O'Mahony produced a typically influential performance. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Munster had stamped their authority all over this game from the first whistle.

It was a breathless start, much to be expected and required on an evening when temperatures had plummeted to one degree before kick-off.

Munster weren’t caught cold. They set the pulses racing from the off, rising to the occasion and setting an intensity and level of physicality the visitors simply couldn’t match.

A peach of a pass from Rory Scannell pierced the Leicester defence and ended the initial jousting to send Arnold into space. The 21-year-old made good ground but the green shirts scrambled to cover Keatley’s stab through.

A momentary relapse, for Munster were relentless. Conway, with the socks rolled around his ankles, and exhibiting all his footballing skills, read Veaninu’s grubber and turned defence into attack, bursting into the space the Leicester fullback had left unoccupied. George Ford tracked him down, but Munster recycled, eventually forcing a penalty in front of the posts. Keatley happily obliged.

Leicester aren’t the side they once were, and Munster weren’t prepared to let them find their bearings in this game. Marshall was unfaltering in his work-rate, O’Mahony left his mark all over the breakdown and Cloete’s dynamic ball-carrying was striking. And that was just the pack. They were ferocious.

Passion, energy and an uncompromising desire to win. The way it should be.

Conor Murray and Conway showed a telepathic understanding down the right, the latter leaping into the biting night sky on more than one occasion to steal the ever-effective box-kick.

And in defence, Munster stood firm every time Leicester threatened; each turnover, steal or clearing kick greeted with an almighty roar from the stands only bettered by when the hosts stretched their lead further.

The breakthrough try came after 20 minutes. Good, straight lines of running was matched with quick phases of shorter ball and when Murray injected a bit of venom to the attack, Marshall picked the gap and bundled through. The hooker, although initially fumbling before regaining control, showed good strength to finish from close range.

Rhys Marshall scores a try Marshall bundled over for Munster's first try. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

Matt O’Connor was left shaking his head, but it was only to get worse for his side. O’Mahony poached the ball on the ground on this near touchline and then Keatley pinned Leicester back for their troubles with a perfectly-executed kick.

The out-half is no doubt playing the best rugby of his career, and the confidence and conviction with which he pulled the strings behind the scrum was a major factor in the outcome of this contest.

Keatley’s return to form, and reinvention into the ballplaying 10 he always had the potential to be, has been one of the stories of the season. Everything he did was perfect, including the delicate chip in behind for Zebo’s score.

The vision was only bettered by the execution, and although the bounce of the ball was favourable for Zebo, it was the luck he deserved; rewind 24 months and it would have been a different outcome, if Keatley had even attempted the move in the first place.

Game over, Munster pulling out of sight. There was no let-up.

Tempers briefly flared in the trenches, Tom Youngs perhaps a little fortunate to escape punishment for neckrolling Cloete on the deck, but at least it reminded us that this was once the pre-eminent rivalry in the competition.

Ford belatedly got the Tigers on the board after they had knocked on the Munster door to no avail, but down the other end, Keatley instantly restored the 20-point advantage heading into the break.

The only question now was whether Munster could maintain their stranglehold and turn four points into the maximum five. Never in doubt.

Munster went for the kill straight away. Quick ball off the top saw Scannell rumble on and when his midfield partner Arnold picked up the mantle, Munster were within striking distance.

Patience and perseverance paid off down the short side as Arnold and Cloete were again involved and with numbers, Kleyn powered on only to lose possession over the line.

Not to worry, O’Mahony wasn’t going to fumble his lines in that same corner. It all started with Stephen Archer’s steal, as Zebo and Sweetnam, who had just been introduced for Conway, combined down the right. Leicester were exposed and the recently-capped Ireland international drew his man in to manufacture the two-on-one.

O’Mahony’s fist pump in front of the south terrace said it all.

Sam Arnold fends off George Ford Arnold enjoyed a fine European debut in red. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

But there was work to do, not least when replacement hooker Harry Thacker finished off a period of sustained possession for the visitors as they enjoyed their best spell of the game. It mattered little, serving merely as a side-note and the prompt for Munster to go again.

Probably fitting that the fourth and bonus point-clinching try was created and finished by the forwards. Leicester, beaten and dazed, had no answer to Munster’s powerful maul and Cloete, amidst a ton of bodies, emerged to cap a stellar display.

Job done, and in some style.

Welford Road will be an entirely different proposition next week — Leicester can’t be as bad again — but Munster head there in complete control of the pool.

A perfect evening’s work.

Munster scorers:
Tries: Rhys Marshall, Simon Zebo, Peter O’Mahony, Chris Cloete.
Penalties: Ian Keatley [3 from 3]
Conversions: Ian Keatley [2 from 4]
Leicester scorers:Tries: Harry Thacker
Penalties: George Ford [1 from 1]
Conversions: George Ford [1 from 1]

MUNSTER: 15. Simon Zebo, 14. Andrew Conway (Darren Sweetnam 46’), 13. Sam Arnold, 12. Rory Scannell, 11. Alex Wootton, 10. Ian Keatley (IJ Hanrahan), 9. Conor Murray (Duncan Williams 73’); 1. Dave Kilcoyne (Brian Scott 55’), 2. Rhys Marshall (Kevin O’Byrne 69’), 3. Stephen Archer (John Ryan 61’), 4. Jean Kleyn (Darren O’Shea 69’), 5. Billy Holland, 6. Peter O’Mahony (captain) (Jack O’Donoghue 72’), 7. Chris Cloete, 8. CJ Stander.

LEICESTER TIGERS: 15. Telusa Veainu, 14. Adam Thompstone, 13. Matt Smith, 12. Mathew Tait, 11. Jonny May, 10. George Ford, 9. Ben Youngs; 1. Kyle Traynor (Logovi’i Mulipola 51’), 2. Tom Youngs (captain) (Harry Thacker 63’), 3. Dan Cole, 4. Mike Fitzgerald (Dom Barrow 51’), 5. Graham Kitchener, 6. Valentino Mapapalangi (20. Mike Williams 63’), 7. Luke Hamilton, 8. Sione Kalamafoni.

Referee: Jerome Garces.

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