Connacht 20 Munster 11
The Sportsground’s new all-weather pitch looked a picture and even though this was far from beautiful, to the delight of the 7,512 attendance Connacht’s season had a badly needed lift-off.
Ultimately, home advantage perhaps told, inspiring Connacht to just dig that bit deeper in demonstrating both more desire and energy, particularly in the final quarter when emboldened by the introduction of Josh Murphy and Paul Boyle to give themselves some ballast, the latter scoring the match-clinching 79th minute try.
In truth, Connacht would have been kicking themselves had they not closed the deal. Although much of Jack Carty’s general passing and kicking out of hand was good he left seven kickable points behind, and Connacht also again went unrewarded for a host of entries into the Munster 22.
But they had the better set-piece, drawing the lines in the sand with some big early scrums, with Finlay Bealham feeling the love from the crowd after a try-scoring, man of the match performance. Dave Heffernan consistently hit his twin towers, the excellent Gavin Thornbury and Oisin Dowling, who also made a couple of steals.
But though they also had the better strike plays, and Mack Hansen was always a threat, they lacked the ball carrying oomph to retain possession through the phases. Munster knocked them back and went after the Connacht breakdown with some success.
At times, not much mind, Munster looked like possible winners, and Gavin Coombes gave their running game a carrying and distributing focal point, they still struggled painfully to build any momentum. In addition to their set-piece wobbles Ben Healy had an oddly below-par night and their back makeshift back three, comprising two academy wingers and Joey Carbery, were susceptible out wide, to balls in behind, and in the air. Munster’s discipline also let them down, not helped by Peter O’Mahony departing late on with an apparent neck injury.
The rain having relented, the surface was a bit skiddy and slippery, and there were too many resets, turnovers, penalties and errors.
Yet Connacht roared out of the traps, so to speak, holding up Munster’s first lineout drive and then twice earning scrum penalties on Munster’s put-in.
They went to the corner and were rewarded from Jarrad Butler’s take at the front, with David Hawkshaw and Shamus Hurley-Langton trucking the ball up before Carty used an advantage to float a pass for Hansen to slip around Carbery.
Although Hansen narrowed the angle, the Clan Terrace groaned loudly when Carty’s conversion hit the left upright. Both Carty and Healy missed penalties to touch, the latter’s going dead, before Connacht found space in behind, from Conor Fitzgerald grubber. When Conor Phillips countered Hurley-Langton’s strength over the ball earned a straightish penalty from inside 40 metres.
Again though Carty’s kick smacked off the same upright and instead of 10-0 it remained 5-0. What’s more it soon became 5-all when Munster engineered a near replica of Connacht’s try. From a scrum penalty up the line, Munster’s maul rolled inexorably forward and, sure enough, eight phases later Healy used house money with a penalty advantage with a pass over the top for Patrick Campbell to score his first URC try.
As the errors mounted and the scrums were continually reset amid two water breaks, Connacht threatened again with a nice strike move; Byron Ralston’s tip pass inside releasing John Porch for him to link with Hansen. But Connacht were harshly pinged when Jack O’Donoghue clearly held Hansen on the deck.
Munster didn’t really generate much else, and were fortunate when Healy’s grubber was blocked but the ball fell kindly before being recycled and reaching Peter O’Mahony on the left wing. He deftly chopped ahead, O’Donoghue gathering and linking with O’Mahony, who offloaded to Conor Murray.
Only Dave Heffernan’s tackle prevented David Kilcoyne from breaking clear, but soon after Carty was offside and Healy edged Munster 8-5 ahead at the end of an undistinguished half of rugby.
With the wind behind them from the Bohermore end, Connacht’s handling twice let them down on the resumption before Carty’s kick rolled dead. Munster went to their maul after Niall Murray was penalised for not rolling away and opted for another three points when Gavin Thornbury did likewise.
The second-half pivoted on a wonderful 50/22 by Conor Fitzgerald, left-footed form his own 22-metre line. Heffernan hit Thornbury at the tail, despite Munster throwing up Beirne, and after rumbling forward Bealham backed himself and reached the line despite the best efforts of Edwin Edogbo.
But, to disbelieving or maybe resigned groans, Carty pushed the eminently kickable conversion wide.
Even so, took over the kicking to nudge Connacht in front, and Porch followed his hit on Carbery by gathering Colm Reilly’s box kick Aussie Rules style by using Campbell’s body to stay in the air. The Clan Terrace reclaimed the Fields of Athenry before Carty hit Hansen on the edge, and Connacht had their big men rumbling.
Opting for a tap penalty, Connacht were done for going off their feet when Niall Scannell clearly hadn’t rolled away. However Munster were promptly pinged in quick succession for obstruction at a lineout, side entry and offside, as Connacht went to the corner and kept it tight to run down the clock.
Reilly darted off a maul and Peter Dooley had a carry before Boyle drove over. Fitzgerald’s conversion ensured a two-score lead ntering the last minute. With that the Clan burst into The Fields one more time.
The new pitch is a hit.
Scoring sequence: 8 mins Hansen try 5-0; 24 mins Campbell try 5-5; 40 mins Healy pen 5-8; (half-time 5-8); 48 mins Healy pen 5-11; 54 mins Bealham try 10-11; 62 mins Fitzgerald pen 13-11; 79 mins Boyle try, Fitzgerald con 20-11.
Connacht: Conor Fitzgerald, John Porch, Byron Ralston, David Hawkshaw, Mack Hansen, Jack Carty (Capt), Kieran Marmion, Denis Buckley, Dave Heffernan, Finlay Bealham, Gavin Thornbury, Oisín Dowling, Shamus Hurley-Langton, Conor Oliver, Jarrad Butler
Replacements: Peter Dooley for Buckley (48 mins), Josh Murphy for Hurley-Langton (51 mins), Paul Boyle for Butler (54 mins), Jack Aungier for Bealham (58 mins), Colm Reilly for Marmion (59 mins), Niall Murray for Murray (62 mins),
Not used: Grant Stewart, Tom Daly.
Munster: Joey Carbery, Conor Phillips, Malakai Fekitoa, Dan Goggin, Patrick Campbell, Ben Healy, Conor Murray, Dave Kilcoyne, Niall Scannell, Keynan Knox, Jean Kleyn, Tadhg Beirne, Jack O’Donoghue, Peter O’Mahony (Capt), Gavin Coombes
Replacements: Jeremy Loughman for Kilcoyne (half-time), Stephen Archer for Knox, Edwin Edogbo for Kleyn (both 51 mins), Craig Casey for Murray for (59 mins), Fionn Gibbons for Healy (68 mins), Rory Scannell for Goggin (73 mins), Jack O’Sullivan for O’Mahony (73 mins), Scott Buckley for N Scannell (75 mins).
Referee: Chris Busby (IRFU)