Munster kept themselves in the Magners League title hunt with an emphatic six-try win over their provincial rivals Ulster at a packed Musgrave Park on Saturday night.
Playing in their changed strip of navy and white, Declan Kidney’s side looked bang on form as they enter the business end of the season.
This result, their third win on the trot over Ulster, moves them back up to third in the Magners League table and while they will get a shot at league leaders Leinster on April 12, their build-up to their Heineken Cup quarter-final trip to Gloucester a week earlier began in earnest in Cork.
Although brimming with confidence after their recent brace of wins under new coach Matt Williams, Ulster were easily swatted aside as the hosts ran in tries through Tony Buckley, Mick O’Driscoll, Ronan O’Gara, Tomas O’Leary, James Coughlan and Doug Howlett.
It was Howlett’s first try in a Munster jersey since his move from New Zealand and it completed a rout as the province’s hunt for silverware gathered pace.
Ulster played well in the opening stages with their young half-backs Niall O’Connor and Paul Marshall settling quickly.
The 20-year-old O’Connor looked the part when intercepting an O’Gara pass in midfield, after a Munster advantage had run out.
Ulster’s lineout let them down time after time however, with Rory Best struggling to find his jumpers with the noise of the crowd and the late withdrawal of Carlo Del Fava not helping the hooker.
A fabulous break from scrum half O’Leary, who gobbled up an overthrown lineout from Best, got Munster on the move and in the eighth-minute, giant prop Buckley powered over from a close-in ruck for the opening try.
O’Gara converted but Ulster teed up a 17th-minute penalty reply for O’Connor after Niall Ronan, who did Trojan work around the pitch, was whistled up for a ruck offence.
O’Connor obliged with the kick and he then put the rampaging Neil Best through a midfield gap, only for the flanker to lose the ball forward as he attempted to link up with Stephen Ferris.
That was the difference between the sides – Munster were able to put their chances away in such a clinical fashion.
They did just that, five minutes before half-time, when lock O’Driscoll bounced off Marshall and touched down to the left of the posts.
Nonetheless, O’Gara’s conversion was replied to by O’Connor, who sent over a towering penalty in injury-time, as Ulster cut the gap at the break to 14-6.
But Ulster’s hopes took a nosedive on the restart when Best failed to find Ferris with a long lineout throw.
Ronan gobbled up possession in front of the visitor’ posts and his simple offload put O’Gara over for the try.
O’Gara converted again and after a decent spell of Ulster pressure, which saw Ryan Caldwell, Ferris and Justin Fitzpatrick carrying well, the Munster out-half showed his brilliance when he sent a 65th-minute grubber kick through for O’Leary to score on the right.
O’Gara completed his night’s work by landing his fourth successful conversion and with the bonus point in the bag, Munster began to empty their experience-laden bench and really dominate Ulster.
They were helped in their quest for more tries when Ulster prop Tom Court was sin-binned for an all too obvious shoulder charge on Lifeimi Mafi as he attempted to chase his own kick through.
The incident sparked a melee on the sidelines but World Cup final referee Alain Rolland was quick to calm matters.
Coughlan was next over for Munster as he took a pass from Peter Stringer and shrugged off a tackle from O’Connor to thunder through.
Paul Warwick, on as a replacement for O’Gara, swung over the conversion and he also added to extras to Howlett’s effort, which was a simple run-in after a feed out of the tackle from Alan Quinlan.