Leicester Tigers were beaten 33-10 by Munster in Pool 4 of the European Champions Cup at Thomond Park on Saturday evening.
Munster took over at the top of Pool 4 with a four-try show in front of a 23,000-strong crowd.
They were 10 points to the good after 20 minutes with a try from hooker Rhys Marshall and doubled the lead with Simon Zeb adding their second try to present Tigers with a major uphill task.
It took the visitors more than half an hour to get off the mark with a George Ford penalty and they went in 23-3 down at the half-time break.
The lead reached 28-3 before replacement Harry Thacker grabbed a score for Tigers, but Munster replied within three minutes to grab their bonus-point touchdown on a tough night for the visitors.
The two sides were meeting for a third successive year in the back-to-back rounds of the Champions Cup, and a ninth time overall in the tournament with Tigers ahead 5-3 on wins going into the game.
After an historic second victory at Thomond Park in 2015/16, Tigers suffered the club’s second-heaviest defeat in Europe last season as Munster won 38-0 at their Limerick home. Just five of the starting line-up from that trip a year ago – Graham Kitchener, Mike Fitzgerald, Ben Youngs, Adam Thompstone and skipper Tom Youngs – retained their places in Matt O’Connor’s team for the return trip on Saturday.
Both clubs welcomed back a number of international players with Jonny May returning to the Tigers line-up after the autumn Tests and Munster recalling an Ireland contingent led by Peter O’Mahony, CJ Stander and Conor Murray.
The teams received a huge reception as they ran out side by side on a bitterly cold December evening and Ford got the game under way to a massive roar from the crowd.
The first five minutes were played between the 10-metre lines, with each scrum-half box-kicking for field position and each defence standing up to the test, before Munster made a breakthrough with a penalty.
It started with Tigers scenting a potential opening near halfway but when the hosts read a grubber-kick from Telusa Veainu, they built dangerously near the opposition line before Ian Keatley opened the scoring with the kick as Tigers were penalised in front of the posts.
Every tackle from the men in red brought a huge roar from the stands and, with the wind in their sails, they kept out a first threat from Tigers after Ford punted a penalty down the right touchline.
When Tigers regained possession, ferocious breakdown work from Munster pushed them backwards before Zebo was able to kick clear.
Ford eyed an opportunity on halfway as Adam Thompstone shadowed his run but when the wing was brought down, Tigers were penalised and quickly found themselves under their posts as Marshall capitalised on a strong run by front-row colleague Dave Kilcoyne to score. Keatley’s conversion made it 10-0 with 20 minutes gone.
Conor Murray sensed an opening when Munster won turnover possession on halfway and kept the pressure on with a kick in behind Veainu before Tigers were able to clear when Tino Mapapalangi secured lineout ball.
Referee Jerome Garces spoke to Lions colleagues Murray and Dan Cole after an incident on the Tigers 10-metre line which brought another penalty which Keatley struck to stretch the advantage to 13 points.
A second try came on the half-hour, with Zebo latching on to a chip over the defence from Keatley who continued to stamp his mark on the game and the fly-half added the conversion to make it 20-0.
Tigers grabbed an immediate opportunity to get off the mark with a Ford penalty after impressive work by the forwards had marched their rivals back from a lineout drive.
Keatley, though, replied in kind when Tom Youngs was penalised as he cleared Rory Scannell at a breakdown just 25 metres out and the skipper was in the referee’s sights again just moments later. Referee Garces took time to consult the TMO about the hooker’s work at the back of a maul and spoke to Youngs before awarding the penalty. This time Munster played down the right but were closed out in the final action of the half 23-3 ahead.
Munster almost broke through Tigers resistance again in the opening minutes of the second half, finding extra bodies on the right, but when Jean Kleyn reached out one-handed with defenders wrapped around him, he spilled ball and Ben Youngs kicked clear.
There was a break in play after a horrible collision between Veainu, who was catching a clearing kick on the edge of his own 22, and Andrew Conway who stayed down on the turf and needed medical treatment before being led off. Nick Malouf replaced Veainu with Tigers moving Jonny May to full-back.
Munster threatened again after a scrum on the Tigers 22 before Thompstone stepped in to knock possession loose, but Tigers just couldn’t establish a foothold in enemy territory and needed a big hit from skipper Youngs to stop Kilcoyne on another dangerous run 10 metres out.
Dom Barrow and Logo Mulipola joined the action on 50 minutes as a penalty finally got up to halfway. But just as play opened up, Kalamafoni spilled ball in the backline and Munster were able to re-set with their supporters in good voice.
From the scrum, though, Tigers won turnover ball and Mapapalangi broke clear, with Kalamafoni on his right shoulder, before the defence closed in 35 metres out. The reward for the hosts was put-in at another scrum after holding up the Tigers drive.
Despite Tigers’ efforts to stay in the fight, they suffered another blow on 56 minutes when Peter O’Mahony claimed the third Munster try after a turnover on the Tigers 22 presented them with spare men on the right flank and Zebo’s run created the space for the international flanker to score.
A penalty down the right gave Tigers renewed hope but, despite a perfect drive from the forwards over the tryline, Munster somehow escaped as ball was spilled.
Respite was only momentary however as a repeat brought a score for Harry Thacker, just a minute after entering he action, from the back of the maul. Ford added the kick as Tigers cut the deficit to 28-10 with 15 minutes remaining on the clock.
The restart, though, brought another chance for the Munstermen when Tigers were penalised after conceding possession and when they got the9r own drive going at the lineout, the result was a bonus-point score in the corner with the whole pack pushing to the line. Although Keatley was unable to add the extras, his side led 33-10.
There was another glimmer of hope for Tigers entering the final minutes when George Ford chipped in behind the Munster line but the ball just evaded older brother Joe.
The referee was playing advantage, though, and another lineout drive almost took Tigers to the tryline before the whistle blew again. This time, play restarted with a scrum and Tigers remained just short of the line as the clock ticked past 80 minutes. Another penalty brought more pressure on the Munster line but there was no way through.