MUNSTER 20CONNACHT 24
Garry Doyle reports from Thomond Park
YOU COULDN’T TAKE your eyes off this. We had five legitimate tries, another two disallowed and that is before we even think of the two fiery scraps that added a real edge to this game.
In the end, Connacht held on –the precise thing Munster couldn’t do when they had the ball in the frantic final 20 minutes when the skies opened and wept for them.
For Johann van Graan and his team, this is a massive blow. They’ve invested heavily in this competition, selecting experienced teams for the three interpros and after beating Leinster and Ulster convincingly, they looked certain to make it a hat-trick of derby wins.
Instead Connacht reminded you of their capabilities. While their set-piece is flawed – tellingly it improved significantly in the second half, when the game entered its critical moments. Ultan Dillane had a fine game for the western side, so too Denis Buckley, their long serving prop, who came on as a replacement.
Yet the gold stars were being fairly widely sprinkled around at the end. Conor Fitzgerald, their starting out half, excelled; his replacement, Jack Carty, had a fairly decent game, too. John Porch is a magnificent player.
In contrast, Munster’s list of replacement stars, Lions Tadhg Beirne and Conor Murray, former Lion Keith Earls, Irish internationals, Dave Kilcoyne, Niall Scannell and Joey Carbery, failed to make the contribution they should have.
And again, they have lost a game they really needed to win. It is becoming a recurring theme and with the criteria changing in terms of who can qualify for the final from the northern section of this tournament, the door is now open to any number of teams. Prior to kick off, it was Munster’s to throw it away. Well, they threw it away.
Kieran Marmion crosses to score. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO
You have to credit Connacht for this, though. In a fascinating opening half, they played the better stuff in it, scoring two tries while messing up the chance to add three more, their out-half, Fitzgerald, the key figure in this period for them, getting 12 of their 17 points.
How they needed him because, for the second week in a row, Connacht’s set-piece was getting destroyed, their coach Andy Friend substituting both props a minute before half-time, after James Cronin and John Ryan had done a number on Paddy McAllister and Dominic Robertson-McCoy.
Had they even achieved parity in this department and had they delivered cleaner passes at key moments, Alex Wootton twice being inaccurate when Porch had the line in front of him, then Connacht would have had a healthy half-time lead.
As it was they still went in 17-14 ahead, their advantage a reward for the way Fitzgerald continually mixed his game up, popping short passes repeatedly before he spun one longer, looping one wide to the right wing, which really should have been collected by Sammy Arnold. He spilled it; Fitzgerald sparing his blushes by slotting over a subsequent penalty.
Munster’s reply was immediate, Connacht’s inability to defend a maul efficiently, becoming an issue yet again for them – James Cronin eventually across for Munster’s opening try but only after the initial drive had gained valuable yards for Munster. John Ryan put in a big carry subsequently, so too Damian de Allende before Cronin eventually got across. Ben Healy converted, Munster led 7-3 and going on the evidence of last week’s fixtures, you imagined that Munster would pull away.
Not so as Connacht scored from the restart, Billy Holland failing to get a touch on Fitzgerald’s kick, Sammy Arnold profiting from Shane Daly’s hesitancy to run to the corner, Fitzgerald kicking a touchline conversion. 10-7, 10 minutes played.
All around us, key sub-plots were unfolding, Munster doubling up on Abraham Papali’I, to successfully stop him making an impact with his carries. Aware of this, Fitzgerald changed tack, angling the odd kick into the corner to keep Munster guessing.
Then on 27 minutes he took his try well, gliding through the Munster defence – who were down a man after Shane Daly’s sin-binning for a deliberate knock-on to put Connacht 17-7 ahead. They were playing well at this stage but conscious of what happened in Galway last week when a 16-point lead disappeared in a flash.
Sure enough, Munster cut into their lead here, too. Their scrum was dominant in the opening half and when they won their second penalty from this source, Healy kicked a brilliant angled kick to the corner, which led to another try scored off a maul, Rhys Marshall with the finish, Peter O’Mahony with the catch to set up the drive. Healy converted again, the score moving on to 17-14.
That was how it stayed at half-time although Connacht should have been further ahead and would have been had Wootton found Porch on two separate occasions. Each time, his inaccuracy cost his side.
But ultimately, it didn’t affect the result.
Key to their victory was Kieran Marmion’s try with the first attack of the second half – again sloppy Munster play contributing to it – Marmion capitalising on Craig Casey’s mistimed pass. Fitzgerald converted, the score moved out to 24-14 and you expected plenty more scores to come.
Instead there were just two more penalties, Ben Healy landing one from inside his own half, Joey Carbery getting another when he replaced Healy.
Munster pressed for more, dominating the second half, seeing two tries chalked off, Peter O’Mahony called back when he looked to have crossed legally; Andrew Conway’s score ruled out after de Allende was ruled to have knocked on O’Mahony’s pass, prior to Carbery delivering a brilliant crossfield kick to his winger.
While those were tough, marginal calls on Munster, you can’t excuse how they finished off the final minutes, getting turned over on three occasions, messing up a key line-out, spilling the ball on two separate attacks. Frustration for them, joy for Connacht.