MUNSTER 22, CONNACHT 16
Munster scorers: Try: Hanrahan; Con: Hanrahan;
Pens: Hanrahan (5)
Connacht scorers: Try: Heffernan; Con: Parks;
Pens: Parks (3)
There was little sign of festive spirit in a bad-tempered RaboDirect PRO12 clash at Thomond Park where leaders Munster continued their dominance in this fixture but where Connacht rallied to snatch a bonus point in the final play of the night.
Munster never looked like losing despite making 14 changes from last weekend’s win over Scarlets but they struggled to put Connacht away and Pat Lam’s men will be pleased to get something from a venue where they have won just once in over eight decades of trying.
They rounded off a memorable December with replacement hooker Dave Heffernan going over in the final play for their first try in the last five away fixtures against Munster. Dan Parks added the far from easy conversion from the right to seal the bonus point.
JJ Hanrahan belied the elements to produce an excellent display which will put him strongly in contention for the number 10 shirt when the Heineken Cup resumes.
He scored all their points and coach Rob Penney said that it is clear the Kerry man is on an upward curve. "He didn't have the best of games last week, but he is a assiduous, conscientious young man who is trying hard.
"He has good people around him, Simon Mannix and Ian Costello are working hard with him and it is bearing fruit, he is a talented kid who's making huge progress."
Munster led 13-6 at the break without ever getting on top for any sustained period during an opening half where both sides were guilty of basic mistakes, especially at lineout.
Hanrahan edged them in front with a 30-metre penalty after nine minutes but Connacht were clearly up for the fight, with a good scrum and lineout, and deservedly drew level five minutes later when Dan Parks landed a penalty from the right.
The former Scottish outhalf edged the visitors in front three minutes later after Matt Healy got a hit on Keith Earls after an up and under from Parks and Robbie Henshaw followed through to nab Ronan O'Mahony and force the penalty.
Munster hit the front at the end of the opening quarter when Hanrahan took his career haul in the competition past the 100-point mark with a try and conversion. The move originated with a misplaced Garryowen from Parks which John Murphy countered from and while the initial burst from James Downey was halted by Gavin Duffy, a few recycles later resulted in Hanrahan stepping inside Parks and holding off the challenge of Mick Kearney to score his third try of the campaign.
It was a score which deflated Connacht's challenge, although they were unfortunate for prop Nathan White to be whistled back as he burst towards the line for a mistaken knock-on call at a lineout.
Hanrahan, having converted his own try, extended Munster's lead with a penalty after he had countered well after scrumhalf Frank Murphy, making his 100th appearance for Connacht against his native province, had his kick blocked.
But a couple of penalties to the right corner by Munster were well defended before the break. Murphy's 100th cap reached an ignominious conclusion three minutes after the restart when he was sin-binned for holding back James Cronin.
And the narkiness continued with TMO Alan Rogan being consulted before Cronin was binned for tapping Jason Harris-Wright on the back of the head and Nathan White for responding to the petulance with a couple of fists. On another night – or with different officials – a straight red for the visiting prop might have been the outcome.
The indiscretions allowed Hanrahan land another couple of penalties to stretch their lead to 19-6 after 49 minutes.
The game became more disrupted as both sides emptied their benches and while Henshaw and replacement scrumhalf Kieran Marmion did most to ignite the Connacht challenge, progress was minimal, although Parks scored his third penalty on the hour.
But Connacht were unable to raise a gallop after that and the icy rain did little to enhance the encounter as Munster saw out the victory.
Hanrahan completed a six-from-six return with the boot with his fifth penalty five minutes from time before departing to applause from the crowd which was officially stated at 18,870 but this included season tickets and there was considerably less than that in the Limerick venue.
Connacht secured an unlikely bonus point in the final play – most of the crowd were distracted by yet another off-the-ball scuffle – when they created an overlap and Fionn Carr sent replacement hooker Dave Heffernan over, with Parks adding the conversion from the right to seal a point.
"I'm proud of the comeback, there were some tough calls against us but to keep going and to score from length of field showed character," said Connacht coach Pat Lam.
MUNSTER: D Hurley; K Earls, J Murphy, J Downey, R O'Mahony; JJ Hanrahan, D Williams; J Cronin, N Scannell, J Ryan; D O'Callaghan, D Foley; P Butler, S Dougall, J Coughlan (capt.) Replacements: CJ Stander for Dougall (47 mins), A Cotter for Butler (52-58 mins), S Archer for Ryan (59 mins), G Hurley for Williams (59 mins), B Holland for Foley (68 mins), I Dineen for Murphy (68 mins), G Slattery for Scannell (75 mins), J Holland for Hanrahan (76 mins), Cotter for Cronin (79 mins).
CONNACHT: G Duffy; F Carr, R Henshaw, E Griffin, M Healy; D Parks, F Murphy; B Wilkinson, J Harris-Wright, N White; M Kearney, C Clarke; A Browne, J Muldoon, E McKeon. Replacements: D Buckley for Wilkinson (49 mins), R Ah You for Browne (52-58 mins), K Marmion for Murphy (53 mins), D Leader for Griffin (56 mins), A Muldowney for Kearney (56 mins), G Naoupu for McKeon (60 mins), Ah You for White (60 mins), Griffin for Duffy (65 mins), J Carty for Henshaw (75 mins), D Heffernan for Harris-Wright (75 mins)
Referee: D Phillips (IRFU). Attendance: 18,870