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Munster's attack clicks into gear against Wasps on record-breaking day for Simon Zebo

Zebo marked his first Champions Cup appearance since returning from Racing by becoming the province’s all-time leading try-scorer in Europe.

Simon Zebo celebrates his first half try.
Simon Zebo celebrates his first half try.
Image: Billy Stickland/INPHO

Munster 45

Wasps 7

Ciarán Kennedy reports from Thomond Park

THIS WAS MORE like it. Munster have often been a frustrating watch this season, but against Wasps at a bustling Thomond Park today the province were ambitious, energetic, and most importantly, clinical in securing a bonus point win which saw them make it four wins from four in the Heineken Champions Cup pool stages and finish third in Pool B.

And the manner of this performance will make them feel all the more confident as they head into the knock-out stages, the province looking assured and comfortable against a Wasps team that never looked capable of finding a route into the game.

Having struggled to find any real cohesion in the laboured home and away wins over Castres, this performance was more in line with the superb display that saw Munster beat Wasps all the way back on the opening weekend, only this time Johann van Graan’s side leaned more heavily on experience than they did in Coventry six weeks ago.

That said, it was 22-year-old Ben Healy who stole the show in the first half, the out-half responding to Jack Crowley’s encouraging performance at Castres in impressive fashion, bringing a real sense of intent to the Munster attack.

The province were forced into two late changes before kick-off, with Keith Earls dropping out due to a muscle strain and Dave Kilcoyne – who had been due to hit the 200-cap mark today – dropping out with illness. In came Simon Zebo for just a fourth start of the season, and his first European apperance since returning from Racing 92, while Jeremy Loughman joined the front row in Kilcoyne’s absence.

Munster were guaranteed safe passage through to the knock-out stages regardless of today’s result, but Wasps knew they needed to leave Limerick with at least a losing bonus point to keep their Champions Cup interest alive. 

And after riding an early wave of Wasps pressure Munster began to take control of the contest, and an early surge towards the line ended with Tadhg Beirne appearing to spill the ball forward while tackled by Dan Robson, with Conor Murray on hand to scoop up the loose ball and cross. A quick TMO review showed it was Robson’s hand which knocked the ball loose, so the try stood and Ben Healy was presented with a simple conversion.

With just 10 minutes played, Munster were 7-0 up and Thomond Park was buzzing. 

Having taken plenty of flak for the lack of cohesion which has peppered too many of their performances this season, Munster were providing plenty of quality moments in the early minutes.

Healy did brilliantly to offload after shipping a heavy hit in the lead up to the opening try, and they almost had a second after a series of big individual moments got them up the pitch, as a move that started with some brilliant feet from Chris Farrell took in a couple of smart offloads and saw Jack O’Donoghue hound down the last Wasps defender as Munster ripped back possession.

The pressure was telling on the English side, and after failing to release the ball under pressure the hosts were able to extend their lead through a Healy penalty on 16 minutes.

Healy looked sharp on his return to the starting team, and with the next play his skipped pass allowed Conway charge down the right wing and kick ahead. The resulting lineout saw Munster move back into the Wasps’ 22, and a well-executed set-piece move saw Healy chip over the top for Zebo, who had the composure to collect the ball and dot down for a score which saw him become the province’s all-time leading try-scorer in Europe.

The Cork man’s 24th try in the competition saw him move one clear of the late Anthony Foley. Healy clipped over the extras to cap a clinical opening quarter for the home side.

gavin-coombes-is-tackled-by-charlie-atkinson-and-dan-robson Gavin Coombes bounces a tackle from Wasps Charlie Atkinson. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

Munster continued to make life difficult for Wasps, but after a series of pick and goes Robson managed to squeeze through the slightest of gaps, with Charlie Atkinson converting.

Munster responded immediately, Gavin Coombes peeling away from a scrum and flattening Atkinson before Jack O’Donoghue crossed to cap his 150th Munster appearance with a try. Healy converted and in the blink of an eye, Munster had restored their 17-point lead.

It felt like a reminder of the potential in this Munster attack when things click. 

Their defence was having a good day too, with the maul solid, Conor Murray chipping in with an important tackle and Zebo doing well to read a kick over the top.

However with Wasps hammering at the line they lost the influential Coombes to a yellow card for playing the ball on the ground, Munster needing to see out the five minutes before half time with 14 men. The visitors then went through 10 phases in the face of a dogged Munster defensive effort before Jean Kleyn won the breakdown penalty, a moment which raised as big a cheer from the 13,000 as any of Munster’s three first-half tries.

A difficult first half for Wasps – who have been hit hard by injuries in recent weeks – then saw them lose Thomas Young to injury, the flanker stretchered off following a lengthy stoppage as he was treated on the pitch, his withdrawal the last notable incident of a lively opening 40 minutes.

The challenge for the hosts was to bring the same level of ambition and accuracy to the second half.

It took them just four minutes to find the bonus point score, Peter O’Mahony collecting a deep lineout throw from Diarmuid Barron – making his first European start – and Loughman applying the final touch after the pack had mauled forward, Healy kicking his fourth conversion as Coombes rejoined the action.

Soon it was Munster who had the man advantage, Wasps losing Robson to a yellow card as both sides began to introduce some fresh legs – the changes sapping some of Munster’s momentum as a few handling errors creeped into their play.

The slew of changes also saw Crowley slot in at fullback as Mike Haley departed for a HIA. However the 22-year-old was left watching most of the action from a distance as Munster continued to play nearly all of the rugby in the Wasps half without being able to reproduce the intensity and accuracy they brought to the first 40, the tempo noticeably dropping off after the bonus-point score.  

The final 20 minutes were disjoined and sloppy, but Munster still had enough to see out the contest, a trademark Tadhg Beirne turnover killing a rare Wasps attack while the likes of Alex Kendellen and John Hodnett came in to clock up more European minutes.

ben-healy-with-rory-scannell Ben Healy had a strong game at out-half. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

As the home crowd began to grow frustrated, Conway pierced a hole in the Wasps defence only to see referee Tual Trainini call the play back following a forward pass from Crowley.

It summed up Munster’s second half, and while they got the job done with some ease, those errors took some of the shine off that superb first half – although they did find room for two late flashes of quality.

First Zebo went over for his second shortly after Atkinson had picked up Wasps’ second yellow card of the evening, his name ringing around the stadium as Crowley added a brilliant conversion.

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And then with the clock in the red, Zebo came within inches of bagging a hat-trick try, before Munster recycled the ball across the pitch for Rory Scannell to cross, Crowley’s conversion pushing the hosts 38 points clear after that late double.

Play like they did in that opening 40, and they could prove a real handful in the knockout stages.

Munster scorers:

Try: Murray, Zebo (2), O’Donoghue, Loughman, R Scannell.

Conversion: Healy [4/4], Crowley [2/2]

Penalty: Healy 16

Wasps scorers:

Try: Robson

Conversion: Atkinson

MUNSTER: Mike Haley (Jack Crowley, 55 HIA); Andrew Conway, Chris Farrell, Rory Scannell, Simon Zebo; Ben Healy (Mike Haley, 68), Conor Murray (Craig Casey, 67); Jeremy Loughman (John Ryan, 59), Diarmuid Barron (Scott Buckley, 51), Stephen Archer (Josh Wycherley, 59); Jean Kleyn (Fineen Wycherley, 59), Tadhg Beirne; Peter O’Mahony (captain) (John Hodnett, 70), Jack O’Donoghue, Gavin Coombes (Alex Kendellen, 59).

Yellow card: Coombes, 34

WASPS: Ali Crossdale; Marcus Watson (Will Porter, 52), Paolo Odogwu, Michael Le Bourgeois (Sam Spink, 47), Josh Bassett; Charlie Atkinson, Dan Robson (Rob Miller, 62); Tom West (Rodrigo Martinez, 47 HIA), Tom Cruse (Gabriel Oghre, 50), Elliott Millar-Mills; Elliott Stooke, James Gaskell; Brad Shields (captain), Thomas Young (Ben Morris, 37 (Tom Cruse, 68 HIA)), Nizaam Carr (Tim Cardall, 68).

Yellow cards: Robson, 51, Atkinson, 78

Referee: Tual Trainini (France) 

About the author:

Ciarán Kennedy

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