With such intense competition for places there was no danger that this “dead rubber” would be a damp squib or a banana skin. Players looking to cement places in the semi-final 23 or to show that they would be ready to step up if opportunity arose brought great hunger and intensity to their performances. Winning 19/22 games and finishing top of the table will not satisfy the appetite of this team. Silverware is their objective and after the disappointment of the European semi and their Pro12 final loss two seasons ago it is great to see the strength in depth in the squad as they prepare for the business end of the competition. Conor Murray was a welcome returnee from injury, taking his place on an awesome bench while four members of the victorious A team fitted seamlessly into the senior team.
Marking his 150th appearance for Munster Ian Keatley took the reins at outhalf and put in a man of the match performance as he had for the reverse fixture on New Year’s Eve in Galway.
There were moments of barbarian style free-flowing rugby with turnovers by both teams but there were crunching tackles also as Munster kept the pressure on the Connacht attack.
In the opening minutes Dan Goggin lost his boot and played on without it till there was a break in play after Rhys Marshall had charged into the Connacht 22.
A well-executed choke tackle by Angus Lloyd and Ian Keatley on the ball carrier won a turnover for Munster. From that scrum in a central position in the Connacht half, Ian’s pass put Dan Goggin through a gap to race forward before offloading to Keith Earls in support who scored the opening try. Ian Keatley converted to make it 7-0 after 8 minutes.
A great pass by Stephen Archer was unfortunately undone by a forward pass from the recipient James Cronin to Keith Earls who would otherwise have been in for a second score.
Another choke tackle, this time by Jean Deysel and Conor Oliver won Munster a scrum on halfway to keep Connacht pinned in their own half. Jaco Taute tried to pin them back behind their own line, he certainly held nothing back in the tackle but was penalised when it went higher than intended! However, a tackle by James Cronin won a penalty for Munster which Keatley kicked to make it 10-0 after 24 minutes, keeping the scoreboard ticking over.
A box-kick from his own half bounced beautifully for Angus Lloyd bringing Munster up to the 5m line, albeit for a Connacht throw. Earls and then Conway ran their clearance kick back at them. Ian Keatley, Keith Earls and Dan Goggin all kept the ball alive and the team moving forward. Keatley carried again, taking play over the 22m line before being hauled down but possession was retained. Quick hands moved the ball from Conway to Cronin and onto Jack O’Donoghue who charged forward to score in the corner. Ian Keatley was successful with the conversion from the east side.
Alex Wootton competed well for the high ball with Danie Poolman to reclaim possession. A few phases later Conor Oliver made great ground but a penalty conceded for coming in from the side handed possession back to Connacht. However, the red line of defence held firm to keep the visitors pinned back as the clock approached thirty minutes played.
The third try came soon after. From a Connacht scrum Tom Farrell’s offload out of the tackle found Tiernan O’Halloran running a great support line. However, as he was hauled down the ball came loose and Munster counter-attacked through Jaco and Conor Oliver who passed to Keith Earls. He was tackled but then James Cronin popped the ball up to Ian Keatley whose long pass found Andrew Conway on the wing. Alex Wootton in support took it on before being tackled. As Alex hit the ground he offloaded to Ian Keatley. The defence was closing in so Ian passed to Conway on the wing. He juggled superbly before diving to ground the ball over the line. The TMO review confirmed he had kept his feet out of touch and the try was awarded. From the opposite (west) touchline Ian Keatley nailed his third successful conversion with a little help from the upright.
From 24-0 down it looked like a long way back for Connacht but they finished the half camped in the Munster territory. Resolute defence held them out and Munster got a great cheer when they won a turnover to bring the half to an end after Jack O’Donoghue came through the middle of a Connacht maul.
The “bonus point” try came just minutes into the second half. Off a Munster lineout inside the Connacht 22, Jack took possession. The ball went wide to Alex Wootton on the wing. Showing great side-stepping skills he brought play infield before being dragged down just metres from the line. Stephen Archer again showed good hands in moving the ball quickly out to James Cronin who charged for the line, dragging three defenders with him as he stretched to ground the ball. Ian Keatley kicked the conversion to make it 31-0.
Andrew Conway showed his pace to burst through midfield. As the defence centred in on him his pass to the wing took the momentum away but a few phases later he was again in action. He chipped the ball ahead and then dived into the Connacht player who stood his ground as he was entitled to do.
Alex Wootton seemed to be injured in that phase of play and was replaced by Tyler Bleyendaal with Ian Keatley moving to full back although he retained kicking duties. Conor Murray was warming up on the sideline.
Danie Poolman gave chase to a kick ahead and won a 5m scrum for Connacht when Keith Earls had to carry the ball over the line. From that attacking position a cross-field kick by Jack Carty found Cian Kelleher who beat Ian Keatley to the ball to score a try. Craig Ronaldson converted to make it 31-7 with 52 minutes played as Conor Murray returned to action.
From the restart Munster were back on the front foot when Connacht let the ball bounce and failed to secure possession. After a few phases of probing, James Cronin gave a pass to Darren O’Shea who took it up the middle before it went wide to Andrew Conway via Tyler and Jaco. Conway raced through to score behind the posts, nearly running over the deadball line! Keatley converted to bring the score to 38-7.
It was high intensity stuff, sometimes lacking in accuracy as possession changed hands. Impact subs were launched – a new front row of Kilcoyne, Scannell and John Ryan plus Saili and Peter O’Mahony – before the hour mark to give them game-time and ensure no let-up in intensity.
A 5m lineout gave Connacht a good platform and while Munster defended the maul Dawai broke from the side and powered over Tyler to score the second try for the visitors. Ronaldson again converted to make it 38-12 after 63 minutes and to give the travelling support something to cheer. Maybe Kevin had been right when he was reluctant to sing “The Fields of Athenry” for the visit of the Westerners as we had been singing it just prior to their score!
John Ryan was tackled by Finlay Bealham who injured himself in the process and had to go off for a HIA. Munster kept pressure on Connacht and continued to play most of the game in the opposition half.
Bodies were strewn in the 5m zone when Dan Goggin collided heavily with Marnitz Boshoff, catching him on the chin. The ball was knocked loose and Francis Saili reacted to pick it up and score a try. Ian Keatley converted to make it 45-14. (Great photo by Linda Molloy capturing the scene here on the MRSC facebook page)
From a Connacht lineout in front of us Tom Farrell made a super break bringing play past the Munster 5m line. The defence scrambled well and won back possession. That was as close as Connacht got to scoring again with Munster playing out the remainder of the game in the opposition half.
A penalty was kicked to touch and Andrew Conway was close to getting a hat trick. Taute was next to probe the line (he had returned when Goggin had to go off for a HIA or blood bin). Connacht knocked on when almost turning over possession on their try line. It was the Academy player of the year Conor Oliver who finished off proceedings with a try on the wing. Paul pointed out that indeed four of the try-scorers on the night had been recipients of that award – the others being Jack, James and Keith. Conor looks like he is enjoying the moment in the photo captured by SportsFile below:
Munster: Andrew Conway, Alex Wootton (Bleyendaal 46), Jaco Taute (Saili 58), Dan Goggin (Taute 70), Keith Earls; Ian Keatley, Angus Lloyd (Murray 52); James Cronin (Kilcoyne 58), Rhys Marshall (Scannell 58), Stephen Archer (Ryan 58); Darren O’Shea (O’Mahony 58), Billy Holland – capt.; Jean Deysel (O’Donnell 65), Conor Oliver, Jack O’Donoghue. Replacements: Niall Scannell, Dave Kilcoyne, John Ryan, Peter O’Mahony, Tommy O’Donnell, Conor Murray, Tyler Bleyendaal, Francis Saili.
Connacht: Tiernan O’Halloran (Darragh Leader ’70); Danie Poolman, Tom Farrell, Craig Ronaldson, Cian Kelleher, Jack Carty (Marnitz Boshoff ’66), Kieran Marmion (John Cooney ’70): Denis Buckley (JP Cooney ’59), Shane Delahunt (Dave Heffernan ’62), Conor Carey (Finlay Bealham ’44),; Quinn Roux (Naulia Dawai ’52), Andrew Browne; Eoin McKeon, James Connolly (Sean O’Brien ’52), John Muldoon.
Ian was disappointed to miss the conversion but was a worthy recipient of man of the match. He gave credit to the dominance of the forwards for giving the backs such a good platform.
This was a good opportunity to try out new combinations and to build the depth which is so necessary to be competitive at the business end of the season. A confidence building performance with good backline moves and excellent interplay between forwards and backs. Finishing top of the table is another boost, along with having six Munster players included in the Pro12 team of the season (only those who had played at least ten league games were eligible so many of the Internationals could not be included). The benefit of the single training base is also being seen in the performances and the young coaching team have shown that they are learning and adapting as they go along. This interview with Jacques from the Examiner is very insightful to his coaching philosophy.
I looked up John McCarthy to confirm that Paul was correct about the previous recipients. I could not find a list of all winners but I trust Paul knows his facts!
The full game is currently on the TG4 player and highlights from the Pro12 YouTube channel are below.
Here is a recording of the full game with no commentary currently on YouTube
I enjoyed TG4’s interview with the Young Player of the Year Darren Sweetnam during the week.
It was a cold, windy evening in Limerick, catching some people out as the weather had been much milder earlier in the week. Babs wore her Munster dress but with her Ireland jacket on over it she could have been supporting Connacht also! I arrived before the turnstiles opened, the fifth person to arrive at entrance 7, behind Sinead and John from Waterford plus Joan and Kevin who had travelled from Cork. The actual attendance was a lot less than the official 17K tickets sold but there was a good atmosphere on the terrace.
Captain of the Munster A team Cian Bohane was interviewed pitchside pre-game with the B&I Cup trophy. On the terrace we also enjoyed watching the video of Fiona (Cork and Munster’s “Lady in Red”) performing at a local Strictly Come Dancing fundraiser a few weeks earlier. We suggested she reprieve her performance sometime as the pre-game entertainment 🙂 Her husband Ger got a slagging for his interview in the “NoClubWithoutU” promo and returned the banter when the other MRSC ad aired featuring Tony, Imelda and myself from the WT. It was great to hear how the membership numbers have increased. The performances on the pitch and regularly sold-out games plus availability of tickets for the knock-out games for members no doubt drove that but it was fun to take a little credit also!
It’s been an emotional journey this season and fantastic that it is not over yet. Ospreys will be hoping that Munster will underestimate them after beating them home and away earlier this season but in cup rugby anything can happen. I am confident that this team and management will not underestimate the challenge ahead but will apply all they have learnt this season and come up with a plan to satisfy their hunger for success.