Munster displayed their clinical edge once again as a 20-point haul in the space of 11 first half minutes helped them on their way to a 25-10 derby victory over Connacht at Thomond Park on Saturday, with the result moving them eleven points clear at the top of the league table.
Stepping effortlessly from full-back against the Ospreys into the number 10 role against Connacht, Paul Warwick was central to a 20-point burst from Munster in 11 first half minutes during which they put their Irish rivals to the sword.
Tries from man of the match Barry Murphy and Doug Howlett set the home side on the way to their ninth straight win and although they failed to pick up the bonus point, they are now 11 points clear at the top and within touching distance of the title.
Connacht made the early running, with their forwards showing plenty of commitment, and Ian Keatley kicked the second of his penalty opportunities to nudge the visitors in front.
The westerners lined out with a new-look centre partnership in Niva Ta’auso and Troy Nathan but their attacking forays were limited and the league’s bottom side were soon left stunned by Munster’s precision play.
Not that Connacht had a high error count – it was just that the defending Heineken Cup champions, who rested a number of their first choice players, were so clinical in taking their first-half scoring chances.
Warwick kicked Munster level and Howlett, Nick Williams and Denis Hurley all carried well before a Warwick pass put Murphy pivoting past Fionn Carr and Andrew Browne and over for the game’s opening try.
Warwick converted, tagged on a penalty and the Connacht defence was unlocked again five minutes before the break when Denis Leamy went on a decoy run which freed up Murphy for another scampering burst before he offloaded for Howlett to score in the corner.
Gavin Duffy stood out as Connacht’s best player in the opening half, strong in defence and a willing runner from deep, but his side faced an uphill task at 20-3 down at the break.
There was some encouragement for the visitors when replacement David Gannon made an early impression on the restart and Duffy and Liam Bibo shifted the ball on for Carr to dot down to the right of the posts, three minutes in.
Keatley landed the conversion but Munster bounced back for prop Federico Pucciariello to burrow over and score from close range on 51 minutes, with Warwick missing the conversion.
Pucciariello’s try was the last scoring act of an enterprising and entertaining encounter.
To their credit, Connacht showed plenty of character over the remainder of the match, holding their own in the scrum and failing to fold when their captain John Muldoon was in the sin-bin.
Muldoon saw yellow for a deliberate knock-on as Peter Stringer tried to release the outside backs.
Munster’s wide men were in powerful form, launching a series of brisk counter-attacks.
Murphy, Keith Earls, Howlett and replacement Lifeimi Mafi all carved out try-scoring chances with midfield breaks but a fourth try eluded them and Connacht’s late push for a losing bonus point was hindered by a Keatley penalty miss.