There was not much evidence of the Christmas spirit at Thomond Park for this seasonal derby which at times had more in common with a boxing bout than a rugby game. With 13 changes from last week (only JJ Hanrahan and Denis Hurley retained after a late withdrawal by Felix Jones) and featuring only six players who had started in Perpignan it was definitely an opportunity for Connacht to cause an upset as their strong team included 10 starters from their recent historic victory in Toulouse. Would they finish 2013 on a high with a second bit of history – their first win away to Munster since 1967?
The red weather warning had finally been downgraded that afternoon but there was a hail shower as I approached Thomond while a heavy shower also fell as the game got underway. Connacht, wearing their away blue and white colours not the expected green were welcomed onto the pitch. JJ Hanrahan got proceedings underway, Munster were penalised for taking out the man in the air and after a knock-on in the 2nd minute Connacht won the first scrum of the evening.
The referee awarded a penalty to Connacht from that scrum and that was the first sign of the niggle in the game as there were afters. The cold rain shower down did not keep tempers in check.
JJ Hanrahan opened the scoring with a penalty in the 8th minute but Dan Parks equalised 4 minutes later and took the lead when Donncha O’Callaghan was penalised for being offside after an exciting passage which started when Earls gathered a high ball but spilled it when tackled, Connacht poured through to block down Williams’ intended clearance, and Donncha was caught offside.
Earls made no mistake gathering the next box-kick sent his way and made good ground before recycling the ball. JJ cleared finding a good position, Munster applied the pressure and with good counter rucking nearly reclaimed the ball. Dan Parks kicked it downfield, but only as far as Johne Murphy – playing in the centre for this game – who set off up the west side and linked well with fellow centre James Downey to bring play almost to the tryline. Earls cleared out, the forwards battered away at the line for a few phases before Williams got the pass to Hanrahan who stepped between 2 defenders to score a try which he also converted to bring the score to 10-6 with 20 minutes played, or 60 minutes remaining as the stadium clock for some reason was counting down from 80 for the first half. It counted up from 40 to 80 for the second half.
Another good break from Munsters half by JJ resulted in a penalty against Griffin for a high tackle and JJ took the opportunity to bring the score to 13-6. Highlights from the first half included Keith Earls who soared high to claim the ball, Duncan Williams who harried and hassled his opposite number Frank Murphy to win a turn over, a great garryowen chased by Hurley which put Duffy under pressure… Duffy seemed to be at the bottom of several rucks in succession and coming up to half time there was the first serious outbreak of fighting involving James Cronin and Gavin Duffy before the others piled in and the referee was busy whistling to get them to break up. After a discussion with his assistant referee the decision was to warn both sides and send them in for half time. This video clip includes the try and the incident at the end of the half so you can judge for yourself.
Traditionally this game is designated as the charity match with €1 from the sale of programs going to the designated charities – Mid West Spina Bifida and CUH Charity – so at half time Ian Keatley and Dave Kilcoyne were on the pitch to present the two organisations with a signed jersey for their fundraising. It is also a good opportunity for them to raise awareness of their work in the province. Red wristbands saying “Munster Rocks” were also for sale by Mid West Spina Bifida outside the ground for €2 each. Alan Quinlan was guest MC for the evening and spoke about competition for places in the squad. Given Munster have used 40 players in the past three games there is also a strong rotation policy and it is great to see that the results are not suffering as a result. It can only be good for Munster to see how the younger players deal with the step-up to the Pro12 League from the AIL and B&I Cup.
Just minutes into the second half Frank Murphy was sent to the sinbin for holding back James Cronin after the ball was hacked through, another 3 points for JJ. Shortly afterwards Murphy was joined in the bin by Nathan White and the aforementioned Cronin. You can see the incident in the video clip below, the first time I ever saw someone binned for goading another player (by patting him on the head). The TMO was asked to review the incident so we saw plenty of replays on the big screen. “Off, off” chanted the supporters while awaiting the decision. Boos rang out when the yellow card was brandished for Cronin as well as White.
In the build-up there was great work by John Ryan and Johne Murphy in holding up the ball carrier and earning the scrum which led to the sinbinnings and a penalty for Munster, again converted by JJ. Unfortunately Sean Dougall was injured to be replaced by CJ Stander.
Alan Cotter made his senior debut while Cronin was in the bin. Later Ger Slattery replaced Scannell to also gain his first senior cap while Gerry Hurley made his first senior appearance in 6 years. Earls made one of the best breaks in the second half and was also involved at the death as the half-finished similarly to the first with more punches being thrown, this time involving him. Play continued and Connacht found space out wide to secure a losing bonus point with the last play of the game. It was unfortunate as Munster had won a penalty only to lose the lineout with 20s to go and should have closed out the game, but credit to Connacht who ran the ball back from their own 22m to ensure they had a losing bonus point to show for their efforts.
The Munster defence was found wanting on that occasion but overall Munster avoided a potential banana skin. It was good to see Paddy Butler back after his injury in round 1 of the Heineken Cup and to see Downey being brought into the game more than on recent appearances. JJ had a 100% return from his penalty kicks and conversion in difficult conditions. Unlike last week there were issues with the lineout and some cases of poor communication led to 2 players going for the same ball on a few occasions but given all the changes to the team that was not so surprising. The injury to Dougall was the main concern of the evening as we head into three season defining games, first up will be Ulster away before the final two rounds of the Heineken Cup. Hopefully there will not be any citings arising from the game to disrupt preparations.
I felt sorry for the players and officials when the rain and hail poured down on them (plus the supporters on the unsheltered terrace), while appreciating the west stand roof again providing us with some shelter from the worst of the elements.
Happy New Year to all my readers, it is great to have breathing space at the top of the table and the Heineken Cup pool at this stage of the season.
Munster: D Hurley; K Earls, J Murphy (I Dineen 69), J Downey, R O’Mahony; JJ Hanrahan (J Holland 77), D Williams (G Hurley 60); J Cronin, N Scannell (G Slattery 77), J Ryan (S Archer 60); D O’Callaghan, D Foley (B Holland 69); P Butler (A Cotter 49-59), S Dougall (CJ Stander 46), J Coughlan Capt. Replacements: G Slattery, A Cotter, S Archer, B Holland, CJ Stander, G Hurley, J Holland, I Dineen.
Connacht: G Duffy; F Carr, R Henshaw, E Griffin, M Healy; D Parks, F Murphy; B Wilkinson, J Harris-Wright, N White; M Kearney, C Clarke Capt; A Browne, J Muldoon, E McKeon. Replacements: D Heffernan D Buckley, R Ah You, A Muldowney, G Naoupu, K Marmion, J Carty, D Leader