Liberated O'Connell leads way

Paul O'Connell, on his return to Munster action last night, receives an uncompromisng welcome from Connacht's David Gannon (4) and Paul Warwick.

Paul O'Connell, on his return to Munster action last night, receives an uncompromisng welcome from Connacht's David Gannon (4) and Paul Warwick.

 

Rugby/ Munster 36 Connacht 17: Paul O'Connell made a spectacular return to action as Munster zoomed back to the top of the Celtic League table with a deserved win over Connacht at Thomond Park last night.

They also picked up a bonus point in the final minute thanks to a try by prop Federico Pucciariello.

Out of action for three months with a hand injury, O'Connell crowned his return with a crucial second-half try and remained in the action for 70 minutes.

This performance was a boost for Munster coach Declan Kidney and also for Ireland coach Eddie O'Sullivan, and both will have been impressed with a man-of-the-match performance by 20-year-old outhalf Jeremy Manning, who will be eligible for Ireland next year.

Connacht defended exceptionally well at times, and for their prop Dan McFarland it was a memorable night as he played his 100th game for the province.

A superbly worked try sent Munster on their way. It came after Anthony Horgan made a great break but was halted just short of the line. Munster lost their lineout but the forwards atoned when they turned a Connacht scrum. From their own put-in several players were involved before Denis Leamy took the final pass to sail in for a try in the corner.

From the touchline Manning saw his conversion attempt come back off an upright after eight minutes.

It was all Munster at this stage and Manning landed a marvellous penalty from halfway to make it 8-0 with some 13 minutes on the clock.

But Munster were shocked midway through the half. Connacht outhalf Paul Warwick, from a penalty, found a great touch near the Munster line.

Connacht won the lineout and set up a rolling maul, which culminated with hooker Joe Merrigan getting in for a try. Warwick converted to leave only a point between the sides, which was flattering to the visitors.

Two more excellent penalties by Manning after 25 and 36 minutes pushed Munster into a 14-7 advantage, which they held at the interval.

But if Munster thought they had matters wrapped up Connacht had other ideas and they were level eight minutes into the second half thanks to great work by their forwards, who created the platform for Paul Warwick to touch down near the posts.

Warwick converted to temporarily silence the big crowd.

The biggest cheer of the night came 14 minutes into the second half, when O'Connell stole a Connacht lineout five metres out and drove over for a try that Manning converted.

Warwick kept Connacht in touch with a penalty and then the visitors had Michael Swift sin-binned for a high tackle on Manning, who landed another penalty just before he was replaced by Ronan O'Gara.

Connacht replaced all three of their frontrow players in an attempt to stem the tide but with Munster strengthening their side it was in vain.

Tomás O'Leary, on the wing after Anthon Pitout's injury, was held a metre short but the move continued and Gary Connolly sent Anthony Horgan in for the try. This time O'Gara converted to make it 31-17.

Just at the end came Pucciariello's try after another splendid build-up by the home side.

MUNSTER: S Payne; A Pitout, B Murphy, G Connolly, A Horgan; J Manning, T O'Leary; F Pucciariello, D Fogarty, J Hayes; T Hogan, P O'Connell (capt); D O'Callaghan, D Leamy, S Keogh. Replacements: J Flannery for Fogarty (17 mins), P Stringer for Pitout (56 mins), M Horan for Hayes (63 mins), R O'Gara for Manning (65 mins), A Foley for Keogh (68 mins), M O'Driscoll for O'Connell (70 mins), T Halstead for Connolly (77mins).

CONNACHT: D Slemen; M Mostyn, G Williams, A Mailei, C McPhillips; P Warwick, T Tierney; D McFarland, J Merrigan, A Clarke; D Gannon, A Farley (capt); M Swift, B O'Connor, J Muldoon. Replacements: C Keane for Tierney (50 mins), J Fogarty, R Hogan and S Knoop for Merrigan, McFarland and Muldoon (all 60 mins), T Robinson for Warwick (75 mins).

Referee: A Rolland (IRFU).