Lying in 7th place in the table, fighting it out with Edinburgh, Cardiff and maybe a late run from Ospreys is not where we want to be at any stage of the season. “We” is not the royal we but includes players, management and supporters alike. By the end of the game the players seemed out of ideas and confidence but not of effort. They tackled themselves into the ground and a few of them on both sides into the medical treatment room.
Talk of transition is not appropriate anymore. Rebuilding is required and I expect there will be a tough pre-season ahead to raise the skill levels and sort out the scrum and defense but first we have two more cup finals to play to try to salvage Champions Cup qualification.
The fact that we are the 4th best or the worst placed province in Ireland (only beating Ulster in the inter-pros) is so disappointing after our 2nd place finish in the league last season. Would it be so bad to be in the Challenge Cup for a season? There are good teams in that competition – this season included familiar rivals Harlequins and Gloucester and some very unfamiliar ones from Eastern Euope. Liverpool were delighted to qualify for the semi-final of the UEFA Cup as they crave silverware.
The lyrics to Florence + the Machine’s “Shake it out” were in my head walking back to my B&B. “It’s always darkest before the dawn” Maybe it was also triggered by the Connacht mascot wearing a “Darkness into Light” tee-shirt and the promotion for that fantastic cause during half-time.
Reading through my twitter timeline was fairly depressing so I sent a few positive tweets and APY replied “I normally admire your optimism, at this point you’ve got to be seriously disappointed” Of course I am disappointed! I travelled in hope to Galway but in honesty I was hoping that their run of tough games against Leinster, Ulster and Grenoble would have softened them up a bit for us as their form this season has been fantastic. They are not tied at the top of the league after 20 games as a fluke! I also thought our hunger would ensure a positive result but Connacht were hungry also; hungry for a home semi, hungry to secure back to back wins over their neighbours and hungry to bounce back after two defeats on the road in front of their home crowd.
Munster had plenty of possession in the opening minutes. Zebo almost got away only to be hauled down but there was good ball retention and they were gaining territory. A penalty conceded at the scrum gave Connacht possession in Munster’s half and a penalty for handling in the ruck in front of the posts gave Shane O’Leary the first kickable opportunity of the game which he took to make it 3-0. A blockdown by Conor Murray resulted in a 22 dropout for Connacht which CJ Stander collected and charged back into their half. From the ruck Johnny Holland gave a lovely offload to Jack O’Donoghue who in turn got the pass away to Simon Zebo who shrugged off the defenders as he swerved his way to the line to put Munster in front. Johnny Holland converted to make it 3-7 after 11 minutes.
A lovely offload from Saili to Earls as he was tackled resulted in a penalty as Earls kicked ahead and then tackled John Muldoon who had batted the ball down – wearing my rose-tinted glasses I would have said Earls was committed to the tackle so when O’Leary’s kick failed to find touch it felt like justice had been served. Another scrum penalty this time kicked to touch successfully. A super tackle by Rory Scannell drove Bundee Aki backwards. However at the next ruck Munster were penalised for handling the ball and O’Leary made it 6-7.
Both front rows were warned about the consistent scrum collapses and cards were threatened after twenty minutes. Jack broke from the back of the next scrum and nearly made the line but Munster retained possession and playing with advantage Zebo sent a cross field kick towards Earls. It was knocked forward but they went back for the original penalty. Munster kicked to touch and deployed their maul. Mike Sherry touched down when he broke from the initial drive and Johnny Holland retained his 100% record, landing the more difficult conversion from 5m in from the touchline to make it 13/13 this season.
Aki made a great break but his offload to Marmion did not go to hand and Munster survived. Connacht came on the attack again but Munster repelled wave after wave, finally winning a turnover. Matt Healy collected Murray’s box kick but the tacklers did their job and won a penalty which Holland kicked to touch.
At 6-14 up I was delighted with the great defence to keep Connacht away from the try line although concerned that we were struggling in the scrum. A forward pass changed the game! It resulted in a yellow card for James Cronin which seemed harsh given that the ref was on the other side of the scrum and it seemed to me that Bealham had dropped but the Assistant Ref probably had a better view and called it.
Connacht turned the screw, but had to go through 18 phases before some quick offloads by Aki and Bealham stretched the Munster defence and Niyi Adeolokun accelerated through a gap to score. O’Leary converted to make it 13-14 with 3 minutes remaining in the first half. From the restart Aki made a glorious break from deep in his own half to the Munster 22. Zebo had him covered so he passed to the supporting Robb but Johnny Holland had chased him down and tackled him almost immediately. However Zebo went offside to give away a penalty in a dangerous position. Sensing their opportunity Connacht opted for the scrum. Jack O’Donoghue was sacrificed to let Dave Kilcoyne on for the sinbinned Cronin.
It was surprising to see Muldoon and Aki swap places and they combined well to set up the next attack. Bealham nearly scored in the opposite corner but Billy Holland and Conor Murray got there. However when Holland did not roll away he was also sent to the sinbin as the clock went past 40′.
Keith Earls tried to shore pup the defensive scrum as Connacht sensed blood but there was little he could do as Connacht were awarded a penalty try to take a 20-14 lead.
When Munster survived the first 10 minutes after the restart – indeed they spent most of that time in the Connacht half – until they got back to 15 on the pitch I thought with the wind they would pin Connacht back but the game seemed to loosen up and it was Connacht who scored all the points in the second half.
The referee was not popular with the home crowd when a kick by Scannell rolled dead but they only got a 22 dropout as Henshaw had been adjudged to carry it over the deadball line. The penalty count was 4-10 against Munster by the 53rd minute. A lineout from the latest penalty was quickly passed wide before Henshaw put in a grubber kick. Sweetnam lost his footing and suddenly Munster were scrambling as Adeolokun chased the kick to score. It looked on the replay that he had knocked on but it was awarded (I think it came off a red foot) and the mountain to climb got higher at 25-14.
Saili burst through under the posts but lost control of the ball to knock it on giving Connacht a chance to clear their lines. Aki made a miraculous recovery from a serious looking leg injury just minutes earlier to race to the half-way line. Connacht thought they were in again, a great surge by Ultan Dillane nearly got all the way but they recycled quickly and it was Finlay Bealham who scored. He was injured in the process as was Johnny Holland in the buildup after a collision with Aki.
The Fields of Athenry rang out around the ground to celebrate the bonus point score which moved them back to the same league points as Leinster. Another stoppage as Donnacha Ryan tackled Matt Healy and injured his neck in the process. A stretcher was called but he was able to walk off after some treatment. It looked like he got an elbow in the jaw as he made the tackle but after a concussion in the Leinster game it wasn’t good to see him with another head area injury. Aki limped off at that time to rapturous applause after another powerful man of the match performance.
Later there were ironic cheers of Ze-bo, Ze-bo as his forward pass gave Connacht a scrum deep in the Munster 22 in the 70th minute. The final minutes were as exciting as the end of the first half in this highly attritional and end-to-end encounter. Robin Copeland made a super break into the Connacht 22 only for Jack Carty – in his first appearance since having his spleen removed – to intercept the pass. Zebo scrambled back to force him into touch but that move brought Connacht back into the Munster half As Munster tried to run the ball for a final attempt to breach the defence they conceded another penalty which Shane O’Leary kicked to make it 35-14.
Injury stoppages did not help build momentum in the 2nd half. In total the second half took 57 minutes to complete!
Match Stats – worth checking out the tackle count of Rory Scannell (17 made none missed) and Donnacha Ryan (22 made 3 missed in 69′.)
CONNACHT: Robbie Henshaw; Niyi Adeolokun, Bundee Aki (Fionn Carr ’68), Peter Robb (Jack Carty ’74), Matt Healy; Shane O’Leary, Kieran Marmion (John Cooney ’67); Denis Buckley (Ronan Loughney ’74), Tom McCartney (Jason Harris-Wright ’74), Finlay Bealham (JP Cooney ’68); Ultan Dillane, Aly Muldowney (Andrew Browne ’64); Sean O’Brien (James Connolly ’72), Eoin McKeon, John Muldoon (captain)
MUNSTER: Simon Zebo; Darren Sweetnam (Andrew Conway ’55), Francis Saili, Rory Scannell, Keith Earls; Johnny Holland (Ian Keatley ’65), Conor Murray; James Cronin (YC ’33 to ’43) (Dave Kilcoyne ’55), Mike Sherry (Niall Scannell ’55), Stephen Archer (John Ryan ’69); Donnacha Ryan (Jordan Coghlan ’69), Billy Holland (YC ’40 to ’50); CJ Stander (captain), Tommy O’Donnell, Jack O’Donoghue (Dave Kilcoyne ’39 to ’43) (Robin Copeland ’56). Replacements not used: Tomás O’Leary.
I have seen green shoots or maybe even corner stones for the rebuilding process this season as some of the next generation of players have put their hands up. Peter O’Mahony will be like a new signing also, as indeed will Tyler Bleyendaal, hopefully both will have an injury-free run next season. So does my glass remain half-full? You tell me!
I hope the team shake off all the negativity and a good crowd can get to Cork despite the bank holiday Friday kick-off to help them get the needed result against Edinburgh.
“And it’s hard to dance with a devil on your back
So shake him off “
It was my first trip to the Sports ground in Galway, about a 15 minute walk from the city centre. I went along early – the gates opened 90 minutes before the game but by then there was a queue outside as people wanted to get a good spot on the terraces. It was sold out and the biggest crowd of the season as extra capacity had been added. The sun was shining on the Clan side but it was much colder on the Main stand side with a strong breeze blowing across to us. Due to the greyhound track along the side of the pitch the early arrivals went up the steps of the terrace to have the best view. The mascot was interviewed pitch side and the interviewer was good craic. The young fellow was very confident he could kick the ball over the roof but it only went a few feet high! He also enjoyed some banter pre-match with injured players Tiernan O’Halloran and Jake Heenan.
The home crowd were vocal throughout – a big cheer greeted every hit which pushed the Munster player back and I am sure the players fed off the energy they generated. It was fun singing one of our anthems, “The fields of Athenry” with them. There was a drummer in the dog track beating out the chant and some of the kids plus the Eagle enjoyed having a turn with the drum stick. I hope Connacht secure a home semi-final – they have a tough home game against the in-form Glasgow Warrios in the final round – and go on to win the Pro12 this season. The west is indeed awake, alive and kicking and it can only be good for Irish rugby and the Pro12.
One of the highlights of the day was meeting up with Joe and Dee and seeing her new ring. Congratulations to the happy couple.
A snip of “The West’s Awake” sung by a duo of tenors before kick-off.