Munster 24 Connacht 17
Not quite in do-or-die territory, but then again not far from it, on a blustery night in Thomond Park, Munster huffed and puffed, and eventually subdued a spirited Connacht to earn a desperately needed third win in eight URC matches this season.
In the process, they usurped their western neighbours and moved into the peloton chasing the breakaway group with this sleeves-rolled-up bonus point win. Their HPC will feel a relieved and better place come Monday after finally registering a derby win at the fourth attempt this season.
The statistics – two line breaks apiece, seven turnovers won apiece, even 94 tackles apiece – point to a fairly evenly balanced interprovincial dogfight high on competitiveness if a little low on quality.
In admittedly difficult conditions, there was far too much kicking, much of it aimless, and in Munster’s case especially, too many handling errors in a game not memorable for its skill levels.
Munster won primarily by winning the penalty count 11-9 and gaining more access to the Connacht 22, and in time-honoured fashion, scored three of their four tries through their lineout maul.
Connacht will feel more aggrieved over the refereeing of 30-year-old Italian Gianluca Gnecchi, particularly with regard to a couple of pivotal decisions, but in truth their attack rarely fired. Save for Bundee Aki, they still lack real ballast in their carrying, and another key factor was the way Munster won the breakdown battle, in large part due to their ability to hold up the ball-carrier.
Bonus point wins by their two high-flying fellow provinces mean that Munster and Connacht went into this game in 14th and 13th place, with fully 17 points between them and second-placed Ulster.
The capricious wind made conditions tricky, not least for the hooker at lineout time. Even Peter O’Mahony couldn’t hold on to one Diarmuid Barron throw and when the Munster captain uncharacteristically also knocked on, this gave Connacht an attacking scrum.
From this they launched Aki, who swatted aside Craig Casey and five phases later a penalty for offside was landed by Jack Carty.
To Calvin Nash’s credit, he chased hard from the restart, charging down Caolin Blade’s clearance. Aki’s ensuing knock-on when failing to gather the ricochet led to an attacking scrum. From this, Casey sniped blind, and good footwork took him on the outside of Blade while drawing in Alex Wootton to give Nash room on the outside for him to earn his reward.
Nicely taken, but soft from a Connacht perspective, although as it was by the corner flag Carbery just missed the difficult conversion.
Connacht had a discernible edge in the scrums, Carty booting one resulting penalty from the 10-metre line to within five of the Munster line. But good work by O’Mahony and Alex Kendellen engineered a turnover.
There were flashes of inspiration from each side, Rory Scannell freeing his arms for John Hodnett to link with Antoine Frisch, who had some nice touches in a promising URC debut which drew favour from the home crowd.
But whereas that attack petered out, Aki freed his hand to release Tom Farrell, and he made a good 50 metres plus upfield, and this led to Connacht’s try. Connacht hammered away before Blade put in the most purposeful kick of the half, angled in behind Shane Daly.
The key was the Connacht chase by Farrell and Cian Prendergast, forcing Daly and Mike Haley in turn to pass infield. The latter was intended for Carbery but Haley hadn’t seen that Byron Ralston had also chased up, and he picked off the intercept to go around the posts.
The half pivoted on another strong Connacht scrum, but referee Gianluca Gnecchi reversed his penalty for the ensuing “afters”, when both sides seemed equally culpable.
Munster went to the corner a second time after being denied in both corners, Barron hitting Beirne before a sustained drive ended with Roman Salanoa scoring. Again, Carbery couldn’t land the touchline conversion and after going to the corner again, fittingly the half ended in another handling error when the drive was held up and Scannell spilled, leaving it 10-10 at the break.
Munster had lost O’Mahony to an HIA, and Haley followed soon after the resumption, meaning Jack Crowley came on at full-back. Carty opted for a difficult penalty to touch after another strong Connacht scrum when a shot at goal, 40 metres out and straight in front of the posts, looked easier. He missed it too.
The largely aimless kicking continued, whereupon Carbery thrillingly went off script by opting for a counter-attack against a Connacht chase that was not nearly alert enough to the danger. Veering infield, he sashayed past Murphy as he does to break clear, chipping the advancing before, it seemed, he ran straight into John Porch.
On review, Gnecchi and his Scottish TMO Andrew McMenemy decreed that Porch had slightly raised his right arm, but it was hard to know where he was meant to go. The Connacht fullback was harshly binned, and though were twice repelled when going to the corner, they kept going wide and were rewarded when Carty was penalised for tackling an airborne Hodnett, albeit the latter was in the air only because of Casey’s pass and Carty was committed to the tackle.
The lineout maul took them to within inches of the line before the burrowing John Ryan was driven on to the line.
Munster milked some more penalties when pinning Farrell and Oisin Dowling at the breakdown, and a clever variation off another lineout maul as Jean Kleyn transferred to Gavin Coombes before hitting the ground, ended with Niall Scannell being driven over for the bonus point try.
Inside the last 10 minutes and entering “last chance saloon” territory, Connacht went up the line with a rare penalty and hammered away at the Munster line, before Kieran Marmion dived through Jeremy Loughman’s tackle after a good carry by Paul Boyle to make it a one-score game.
But Munster comfortably kept their final attack near the 10-metre line and on the back foot before Carty failed to hold Marmion’s pass along the ground as the scrumhalf was tackled – he believed illegally.
Scoring sequence: 10 mins Carty pen 0-3; 12 mins Nash try 5-3; 27 mins Ralston try, Carty con 5-10; 37 mins Salanoa try 10-10; (half-time 10-10); 59 mins Ryan try, Carbery con 17-10; 66 mins Ryan try, Carbery con 24-10; 74 mins Marmion try, Carty con 24-17.
Munster: Mike Haley, Calvin Nash, Antoine Frisch, Rory Scannell, Shane Daly, Joey Carbery, Craig Casey, Josh Wycherley, Diarmuid Barron, Roman Salanoa; Jean Kleyn, Tadhg Beirne, Peter O’Mahony (CAPT), John Hodnett, Alex Kendellen.
Replacements: Jack O’Donoghue for O’Mahony (36 mins), Jack Crowley for Haley (43 mins), Jeremy Loughman for Wycherley, John Ryan for Salanoa (both 49 mins), Niall Scannell for Barron, Gavin Coombes for Kendellen (both 54 mins), Edwin Edogbo for Kleyn (67 mins),
Not used – Paddy Patterson.
Connacht: John Porch, Byron Ralston, Tom Farrell, Bundee Aki, Alex Wootton, Jack Carty (CAPT) Caolin Blade; Denis Buckley, Dave Heffernan, Finlay Bealham, Josh Murphy, Gavin Thornbury, Cian Prendergast, Conor Oliver, Jarrad Butler.
Replacements: Jack Aungier for Bealham, Oisín Dowling for Murphy, Paul Boyle for Butler (all 52 mins), Conor Fitzgerald for Ralston (58 mins), Peter Dooley for Buckley (60 mins), Shane Delahunt for Heffernan, Niall Murray for Thornbury, Kieran Marmion for Blade (all 65 mins).
Sinbinned – Porch (48-58 mins).
Referee: Gianluca Gnecchi (FIR).