For a while it looked like it could be another 3-nil classic at the rain-swept Sportsground. Indeed that was the score from the 2nd till the 31st minute. A bright opening period featured a smashing offload out of the tackle by Keatley to Earls. Keith made some ground before passing the ball onto Academy centre Dan Goggin and it was great to see Munster moving into the Connacht 22 in the opening minutes. Possession was retained and shortly after, another nice offload by Ian put Billy Holland through a gap. The ball was carried forward by Dave Foley and Munster were almost over the line. Connacht conceded a penalty and Munster took the points on offer.
Francis Saili on his first start of the season had to scramble well to put the dangerous Adeolokun into touch. A kick through by Duncan Williams came back off a Connacht player and Marmion chased it as it crossed the line. Ian Keatley was shepherding it out over the sideline but Marmion got a hand between his legs to touch the ball but I did not think he exerted downward pressure. The TMO reviewed and decided that the ball went dead. That was a close call!
In the inclement weather there were plenty of knock-ons and therefore scrums. Archer was penalised for collapsing, allowing Jack Carty to step up after 18 minutes but the wind took his attempted equalising kick wide of the target.
Rory Parata almost got through but Conway met him on the gain line and stopped him in his tracks. Still it seemed to be all Connacht. Matt Healy was next to get close but the ball was spilled and Saili tidied up.
A forward pass led to another Munster scrum, back on their own 10m line. However, they lost possession and conceded a penalty after good work by Finlay Bealham. Jack Carty kicked for goal again and this time it went between the posts to tie the game after 31 minutes. I expect that the supporters near the flame throwers were delighted to get a blast of heat to celebrate the score (and again as the players returned for the 2nd half – the flames must have briefly warmed the sodden supporters)
More lineouts, knock-ons and scrums as Munster struggled to get out of their own half. However, a penalty for Munster this time from a scrum after 37 minutes gave them a foothold in the Connacht half. Captain Billy Holland juggled but secured the ball. Again the maul formed and the referee penalised the Connacht hooker McCartney for entering from the side. It was not a simple kick at goal in those conditions. Ian Keatley’s experience in the sportsground stood to him as he was unfazed by the conditions. Duncan Williams held the ball steady as Keatley lined it up and duly put it over to make it 3-6 approaching half time.
A psychological blow for Connacht who had seemed to dominate, other than the opening and closing minutes of the half. ESPN STATS show that my perception was wrong as Munster had more possession in the first half but the tackle count shows how Munster made more than twice as many tackles during the game.
I had to watch the start of the second half a few times to confirm who was involved. The restart was gathered by Jack O’Donoghue. When he was tackled he went to ground, Jean Kleyn charged forward capitalising on a defensive lapse. Jean’s offload put Duncan Williams through a gap. Tommy O’Donnell was in support to take the pass and charge over the half-way line. The attack broke down due to yet another knock-on but it was an exciting start.
Overall, it was a messy game. Penalties, knock-ons, scrums, penalties, mauls, handbags, warnings, mauls; scrambling to make their tackles and keep their footing… The bounce of the ball on the sodden turf was unpredictable and handling was tough. Possession of the equivalent of a bar of soap was practically a liability. One slip, one missed tackle could turn the game on it’s head…I felt sorry for the players, officials and supporters having to be out in those conditions.
Andrew Conway was busy throughout and I thought he was away on 48 minutes after Rhys Marshall tackled Jack Carty and the ball went loose but the referee called it back for a knock–on, another contentious decision in my view watching the replay.
Munster dominated the lineout but Connacht dominated the scrums, to such an extent that when they drove Munster off the ball at pace to win a penalty after fifty minutes the referee issued a team warning to Billy about too many scrum penalties.
Carty stepped up and equalised (6-6) while Archer was replaced by Thomas Du Toit. When James Cronin was penalised for a second high tackle Dave Kilcoyne was sprung from the bench and he picked up from where he had left off last week with some big tackles.
A few minutes later, it was the turn of Kilcoyne to be penalised for side entry to the maul which Connacht kicked to touch. They secured their lineout but Munster stoutly defended the maul. “Use it or lose it” called Phillips. A fantastic and crucial, match-changing turnover as Rhys Marchall ripped the ball off his opposite number. I was a bit distracted watching that sequence as Kilcoyne almost had a serious wardrobe malfunction. Honestly I had to replay it several times, just to confirm that it was Rhys who had won back possession around the 55 minute mark 😊
Ian Keatley from practically the Munster try line opted to kick cross field where Conway collected the ball around the 22. His mazy runs brought play up towards halfway. Earls chased the box kick sent up by Duncan Williams and put Carty under pressure as the support arrived to drive over and take back possession. Duncan got the ball to Dan Goggin whose grubber kick was chased by Jack O’Donoghue and he managed to push the defender Marmion into touch to give Munster an excellent attacking position deep in their 22. Connacht protested that Marmion had not been allowed get up but the referee was happy with the tackle. That brave and ballsy kick by Ian Keatley and the work-rate of the supporting players was a game changer. Rhys Marshall off the back of the subsequent maul scored his first try for Munster on 57” and put Munster ahead just minutes after Connacht had nearly scored at other end. The excellent conversion kick made it 6-13.
However there was still time for Connacht to equalise again, especially as Munster were still on a scrum warning despite changes as the referee reminded them.
A cross field kick after a Connacht scrum was gathered by Healy who raced forward. Ronan O’Mahony managed to stop him while Saili was second in and picked up Healy causing the ball to squirt out. Dan Goggin took possession allowing Munster clear the danger from their half.
All the time Munster were keeping the pressure on the home team, including the excellent Keith Earls who won a penalty when Connacht did not release. It was important to convert pressure into points and a drop goal by Keatley extended their lead (6-16). Tommy O’Donnell looked to be in trouble in the lead up to that score and it was a worrying sight to see him going off. Robin Copeland replaced him as Conor Oliver had already come on for Dave Foley.
Andrew Conway broke through again but again the whistle blew and he was called back for a scrum, and when it collapsed it was inevitable that a yellow card was shown to Killer at 71.”
Given the conditions it did not take long for a knock-on to occur so Munster had to take off Jack O’Donoghue to allow James Cronin back in for the scrum. It also seemed inevitable that a penalty was conceded from that scrum. Connacht kicked for touch and tried to make their man advantage pay via their maul before passing to their backline but the red line held firm as the clock ticked down. The referee indicated advantage for Connacht and when their cross-field kick was fumbled he blew for the penalty. Carty kicked it to secure the losing bonus point (9-16) and Connacht sought to set up the opportunity to equalise in the closing minutes. Munster were in no rush to restart and worked their socks off to keep Connacht pinned back. Munster won another crucial turnover through Du Toit and while they then gave away possession due to a forward pass (which was a pity as I think O’Mahony would have scored from there otherwise) they were in the right part of the pitch and the clock was in the last minute according to TG4.
I was beginning to count my chickens and then worried I had jinxed the team as after fighting hard to keep Connacht pinned back, panic seemed to set it. Conor Oliver dived on a loose ball but instead of kicking it out to end the game, the ball was mis-kicked back to Connacht or maybe it was an attempted drop-goal. In the following phases as Connacht tried to break out of their own 22 Duncan got sinbinned but the team dug deep (Killer had returned at least and according to Murray Kinsella Cronin had not left so Munster had 15 on the pitch?) Eventually Conway kicked the ball out to bring proceedings to a close after a gruelling 84 minutes.
Connacht: Tiernan O’Halloran, Niyi Adeolokun, Rory Parata, Peter Robb, Matt Healy, Jack Carty, Kieran Marmion, Denis Buckley, Tom McCartney, Finlay Bealham, Quinn Roux, James Cannon, Nepia Fox-Matamua, Jake Heenan, John Muldoon (Capt.) Replacements: Dave Heffernan, JP Cooney, John Andress, Lewis Stevenson, Danny Qualter, Caolin Blade, Ciaran Gaffney, Naulia Dawai.
Munster: Andrew Conway; Keith Earls, Francis Saili, Dan Goggin, Ronan O’Mahony; Ian Keatley, Duncan Williams; James Cronin, Rhys Marshall, Stephen Archer; Jean Kleyn, Dave Foley; Billy Holland (Capt.), Tommy O’Donnell, Jack O’Donoghue. Replacements: Dave Kilcoyne, Kevin O’Byrne, Thomas Du Toit, Robin Copeland, Conor Oliver, Te Aihe Toma, Rory Scannell, Jaco Taute.
As a side note John Andress, recently retired from play (at Munster) came on for Connacht as he recently signed a short term contract with them due to their injury crisis. Also good news confirmed January 2nd that Jaco Taute’s contract has been extended to the end of the season.
Highlights video from the Pro12 YouTube channel focus on penalty kicks but you do hear cheer when flames celebrate Connacht scores. Pity they did not include the kick which set up the try and attributed the try to Ulsters Luke Marshall. For the next month you can get the full game on the TG4 Player here and that kick is at 1 hour 30 minutes into the coverage.
Ospreys may move to the top next weekend as Munster had to defer their game in Edinburgh to complete their European Cup tie with Racing 92 but the position at this stage of the season gives great hope. This time last year hope was all we had. Out of Europe, embarrassed at home by Leinster the game in Ulster gave us respite from all the doom and gloom thanks to a drop goal by Ian Keatley in another man of the match performance. That win moved Munster up to 5th in the table on 32 points but the worrying stat was a points difference of -17 See the full table in my blog from the Ulster game last year. Going into this game Munster have one of the best defences in the league to date while 38 tries scored gives them a super points difference of +150. It’s been an emotional roller coaster but heart-warming to see the team playing well and the supporters getting behind them.
Happy new year to all my readers, thanks especially to those who shared, commented, subscribed to and / or liked my blogs in 2016. I appreciate the encouragement and while the number of views in 2016 are a few hundred lower than those of 2015 I am optimistic for 2017 and especially for the exciting few months ahead.
To finish up, this is my favourite from my photos taken in 2016.