An outstanding display from the Munster ‘A’ secured a very impressive 40-29 bonus point win over a strong Scarlets ‘A’ selection in the Celtic Cup at Irish Independent Park tonight.
The Greencore Munster Academy quartet of Jack Stafford, Liam Coombes, Ben Healy and Sean O'Connor all touched down for Peter Malone's youngsters, with out-half and captain Bill Johnston immaculate off the tee with four conversions and four penalties for a 20-point haul.
It was a less than ideal start for Scarlets 'A' who came into the round as Welsh Conference leaders. Their right winger Morgan Williams was sin-binned in the opening minute for tackling a player in the air, and Munster 'A' immediately took advantage.
After kicking to the right corner, Munster 'A' set up for a rolling maul and clever play from Darren O'Shea saw the lock peel to the blindside and pop a pass to Stafford. The scrum half was faced by two defenders but finished expertly to give the province an early lead. Johnston's crisply-struck touchline conversion made it 7-0.
However, a dominant Scarlets 'A' rolling maul on 10 minutes saw the visitors go over for their first try through flanker Shaun Evans, and senior regular Dan Jones added the extras to level matters as Williams returned to the fray.
Having gained the upper hand, the Llanelli men struck for a second try on the quarter hour mark. Munster 'A' had been defending bravely on their own line but the pressure finally told as prop Rhys Fawcett burrowed over and Jones converted to move Scarlets 'A' 14-7 in front. Munster 'A' fought back and a straightforward Johnston penalty on 20 minutes reduced the arrears.
The hosts were back in front after 27 minutes with Coombes released by Stephen Fitzgerald down the left flank and the tall winger showed excellent pace to burn clear of the cover and score. Johnston's conversion from the left touchline was good to make it 17-all.
With Calvin Nash and Matt More both having to depart with knocks, Munster 'A' were forced into a rejig. Replacement Ben Healy took the place of Johnston at out-half with the 21-year-old skipper moving in to partner replacement Alex McHenry in the centre, and Shane Daly went out to the wing.
Johnston initiated another excellent Munster 'A' attack as his cross-field kick set Coombes free up the left flank with the move eventually leading to another penalty opportunity for Johnston. His place-kick sailed through the uprights for a 20-17 scoreline.
An excellent last-ditch tackle by Coombes on Scarlets 'A' number 8 Tom Phillips just before the break preserved the Munster 'A' lead as the hosts went into the break three points to the good. Indeed, a perfect start to the second half saw teenager Healy strike after just 45 seconds.
Jones' attempted chip over the defence was blocked and Healy snapped up the loose ball and raced nearly 50 metres to score a sucker-punch try. Johnston added the extra two and suddenly the Munstermen had developed a 10-point cushion.
Nonetheless, Scarlets 'A' exploited an overlap on the right wing just a few minutes later as Wales international Steff Evans released Morgan to cross the whitewash and Jones' second conversion closed the gap to 27-24. A third Johnston penalty after a high tackle on Shane Daly gave Munster 'A' some breathing space.
But Scarlets 'A' pounced again when Steff Evans latched onto a kick in behind the defence for a 56th minute try. Jones was off target with the conversion, leaving Munster 'A' with a single point advantage heading into a fascinating final quarter.
Crucially Munster 'A' gained the upper-hand after Scarlets 'A' lost their captain Steff Hughes to the sin-bin for a high tackle on Healy with 63 minutes on the clock. Jack Daly powered through a gap after taking a great line, and a cross-field kick found O'Connor in acres of space to score the hosts' bonus point try. Johnston converted and his fourth successful penalty of the night, in the 76th minute, sealed an 11-point win for the province.
Referee: Chris Busby (Ireland)