Last season, Connacht’s best chance of qualifying for the European Cup was to finish ahead of the 2nd best Welsh team but this season not only are they clear of Llanelli but they are also putting pressure on the other Irish provinces. They beat Leinster in Galway in September but lost to them in the RDS two weeks ago. After losing a close contest in Belfast (13-10) last week they were determined to defend their unbeaten home record this season and upset the record books with regard to their results against Munster. The statistics showed that they had only beaten Munster twice in 42 attempts, and the latest succession of defeats stretched back to December 2008. So plenty of motivation in addition to the normal inter-provincial rivalry.
If Munster had heroically defended their line in the final minutes as Connacht did to deny Munster even a losing bonus point I would be singing their praises so it is only right to credit Connacht for their determination and excellent discipline. They lived up to their motto, to front up and rise up. The West is indeed awake!
When I saw the weather forecast – near gale force winds and rain – I expected a game of two halves. Munster did not score in the second half when playing against the wind, and their early 13 point lead proved inadequate. When Connacht scored a wonderful try in the first half momentum shifted their way. Munster were on the back foot, making tackle after tackle but starved of possession they could not make any inroads on the score board.
I watched the game with some of the regulars from MRSC Dublin. Given the holiday season and bad weather there was a decent number there, intimidating some diners as we watched the TV screen behind their heads! I also received regular updates by text from Bernie and Ed who were braving the elements at the sold-out game.
A nice kick through by JJ Hanrahan was chased by Andrew Conway who seemed to be pushed out by Bundee Aki. Ian Keatley tackled Kieran Marmion into touch to give Munster a lineout in a great position but possession was not secured. Keatley’s kicking at goal was excellent, three penalties and a very difficult conversion in those conditions was tremendous. The first came in the 8th minute and was quickly followed by a typical Munster try from a rolling maul after a kick by Keatley got Munster down to the 5m line when the ball just rolled into touch on the right side of the flag post. From the lineout Munster forced the Connacht player into touch to set up their own lineout. Peter O’Mahony broke off the maul and was driven on by Duncan Williams and BJ Botha. Duncan Williams was again lying on the pitch to hold the ball steady for the excellent conversion and 10-0 up after 10 minutes all was going well. Another penalty made it 13-0 just after the quarter hour mark. We wondered how much the wind advantage was worth after seeing it catch a kick directed up the midfield, causing it to go out over the side-line on the full.
Connacht began to hold onto the ball through more phases and just shy of the half hour mark they got their first try. A lovely chip over the defensive line by Craig Ronaldson, expertly gathered by Robbie Henshaw who offloaded to the supporting Marmion as he was about to be tackled by Zebo and Conway. The conversion by Ronaldson made it 7-13 giving Connacht the reward their efforts and 76% possession deserved.
A break by Simon Zebo approaching half-time after good work by the forwards resulted in a penalty when Zebo was hauled back by the collar by Aki. Ian Keatley converted the penalty to maintain his 100% record and Munster went in at the break 7-16 up after surviving a late Connacht lineout close to their line when Rodney Ah You knocked on.
Kevin O’Byrne replaced Duncan Casey at half time. The big Connacht centres continued to wreak havoc. Henshaw made a great break, supported by Aki who almost got to the line himself before Marmion got the pass away quickly to Ronaldson. He took a knock against Ian Keatley’s knee in the act of scoring so Darragh Leader had to convert the score. Referee Wilkinson insisted that replacement Miah Nikora could not take the kick as he was not a permanent replacement per the rulebook! Leader was successful and with 36 minutes left it was a 2 point game (14-16).
Ten minutes later, a knock on was compounded by an offside giving Connacht a penalty which Nikora (now a permanent replacement) converted to take the lead. A kick out on the full gave Connacht possession and after 11 phases a good break by Quinn Roux put them on the front foot. From their scrum Marmion made a great break only to be hauled down before the line but Aly Muldowney quickly recycled the ball to score despite the best efforts of Tommy O’Donnell. As Nikora had gone off himself temporarily Leader again kicked the goal and Connacht moved into an 8 point lead with 18 minutes left.
While there were no further scores there was plenty of action. It was strange to see Paddy Butler wearing the 22 jersey, – a late replacement in the team for Rory Scannell who had to withdraw due to illness. He came on for Tommy O’Donnell who needed treatment. Munster enjoyed a period of possession but found it difficult to get outside their own half. At this stage they were operating at only 34% possession. Dave Callaghan replaced Billy Holland on the occasion of his 100th appearance.
For the last ten minutes or so Munster laid siege in the Connacht half. They mauled, twirled, they picked and went, but each time Connacht scrambled to hold their line intact. They fronted up, forwards and backs combined, not even conceding a penalty opportunity through 20 phases, before Munster got one final penalty chance with just a minute remaining. It was too far to the side to go for goal so Keatley kicked for touch and a lineout. The maul was prevented, O’Donnell, back on the pitch came close to the line before a turnover was achieved and it seemed fitting that Robbie Henshaw, man of the match, booted the ball downfield to the delight of Connacht players and supporters alike.
Connacht will take great heart from their win over a strong Munster team. Qualification of Irish teams for the European Cup could go down to the wire if they can maintain their strong league performance (which probably depends on keeping their key players fit) which can only be good for competitiveness of the Pro12. Munster’s search for consistency will continue next week away to Zebre.
Munster: Simon Zebo; Andrew Conway, Pat Howard, JJ Hanrahan, Ronan O’Mahony, Ian Keatley, Duncan Williams; John Ryan, Duncan Casey, BJ Botha, Billy Holland, Paul O’Connell, Peter O’Mahony Capt., Tommy O’Donnell, CJ Stander. Replacements: Kevin O’Byrne, Eusebio Guinazu, Stephen Archer, Donncha O’Callaghan, Dave O’Callaghan, Neil Cronin, Paddy Butler, Ivan Dineen.
Connacht: Mils Muliaina; Darragh Leader, Robbie Henshaw, Bundee Aki, Danie Poolman; Craig Ronaldson, Kieran Marmion; Denis Buckley, Tom McCartney, Rodney Ah You, Quinn Roux, Aly Muldowney, John Muldoon Capt., Willie Faloon, Eoin McKeon. Replacements: Dave Heffernan, JP Cooney, Finlay Bealham, Ultan Dillane, George Naoupu, John Cooney, Miah Nikora, Dave McSharry.
Highlights on TG4 site: http://nasc.tg4.tv/1K4QYZy
Happy New Year! It’s been great to see the number of views double in 2014, here are the 5 most read posts – unsurprisingly mapping to the bigger Munster wins!:
|Stander Up and Fight – Quarter Final v Toulouse, Apr 2014|
|Driving the Blues away – Munster v Leinster, Dec 2014|
|The “Killer” Blow – Munster v Saracens, Oct 2014|
|Wind in their Sale…– Sale v Munster, Oct 2014|
|Aviva Ambush & Donnybrook Derby – Leinster v Munster Oct 2014|
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