Connacht 24 Munster 16
“Typical Sportsground weather,” ventured one of the car park attendants, and if ever there was a clichéd picture of an interpro derby hereabouts, this was it. A near gale-force wind slanted in sheets of swirling rain off the Atlantic coast, an old-fashioned arm wrestle and a capacity crowd were hooked from the first minute. One slight difference from the dog-eared scripts. The Sportsground has now become a fortress for Connacht.
Given Connacht had only won one of their previous 41 meetings with Munster, this certainly constituted a break with custom, but then again, Connacht are a force now and they remain unbeaten in their Galway bear pit this season. Indeed, for once a sell-out, of 7,745, actually looked like one, and certainly sounded like one.
One point had been a scant return for their two previous derby showings but it left Connacht facing a point of no return if their top six, nay top four, Pro 12 ambitions were to remain viable. Trailing 13-0, albeit into a gale, they were even knocking on the door for a bonus point before a five-minute siege by Munster at the death left them drawing a blank.
Pat Lam's side never lost their intensity or belief despite that early deficit, manufactured a wonderful seven-pointer into the gale to maintain that belief, and then ran out worthy winners. Connacht controlled the ball better, not least off a near perfect lineout, in out-Munstering Munster with ferocious close-in carrying and recycling, and had real game-breaking match-winners in Bundee Aki, a ball of hyperactive energy – albeit a penalty waiting to happen – and the awesome Robbie Henshaw, who did nothing wrong and many things magnificently.
Their summer signings – Tom McCartney, Aki and Mils Muliaina – revelled in the worst mid-winter conditions, and the likes of John Muldoon and Ally Muldowney were inspired, and Kieron Marmion a typical livewire.
Munster had first use of the huge wind and it wasn't long before the returning Peter O'Mahony, Munster's best player, was making his presence felt after a 70 metre touch-finder by Ian Keatley. First O'Mahony wrestled the ball from McCartney to win an attacking lineout, and the captain then broke off the maul to power over.
Keatley’s judgement for the conversion showed how well he had reacquainted himself with this venue in the warm-up, aiming a good 10 metres beyond the far post to see the wind draw the ball unerringly between the posts.
He added another penalty before the tide started to turn decisively. The rain did cease just after the first quarter, even if the wind stayed, and cometh the half-hour Connacht conjured a crucial try. From one of many athletic takes by Muldowney, Craig Ronaldson waited for the red line to advance and chipped deftly for Henshaw to gather without the ball bouncing, beat the covering Duncan Williams and run on before drawing Simon Zebo and passing for Marmion to skate in.
Ronaldson thumped the conversion through the wind and posts, and, suitably buoyed, Connacht’s maul promptly marched Munster back 20 metres to another thunderous roar. Despite another Keatley penalty for Aki’s high tackle on Zebo, the psychic energy was with the home team, all the more so within three minutes of the resumption after the first of two kicks out on the full by Keatley.
From another unerring McCartney lineout, the outstanding Henshaw broke clean through the Munster midfield with a wonderful line and offloaded for Aki to beat two more defenders. From the recycle, the timing and pace of Ronaldson’s carry low to the ground was virtually unstoppable.
He was injured in the process, leaving Darragh Leader to land the conversion, and after more inroads by the Aki-Henshaw combination with Willie Faloon carrying hard and at pace, Munster had long since looked too rattled to cope. Williams compounded a poor pass to Keatley which the outhalf fumbled by diving on the loose ball from an offside position for Miah Nikora to push Connacht in front.
"Conn-acht," reverberated from the Clan terrace and beyond, and the home side rode the western wave to go through the phases again; Quinn Roux making a huge, thunderous carry and bludgeoning through John Ryan before Zebo, brave throughout, somehow stood up to him.
The ensuing scrum wheeled the wrong way, but Marmion nearly scampered in again when on his own on the blind side, before a couple of recycles later the excellent Muldowney plunged over and Leader judged the conversion to put them two scores clear.
Having been denied an attacking bonus point themselves, Connacht then denied Munster even a losing consolation with a defiant last stand; McCartney and Muldowney dragging JJ Hanrahan into touch and then Dave Heffernan pouncing on a loose ball for Henshaw, fittingly, to make the final play when kicking to half-way.
Long after the full-time whistle, Connacht and the Clan Terrace applauded each other with feeling. The west’s awake alright. There’s something special brewing here.
Scoring sequence: 8 mins Keatley pen 0-3; 11 mins O'Mahony try, Keatley con 0-10; 16 mins Keatley pen 0-13; 30 mins Marmion try, Ronaldson con 7-13; 39 mins Keatley pen 7-16; (half-time 7-16); 43 mins Ronaldson try, Leader con 14-16; 56 mins Nikora pen 17-16; 61 mins Muldowney try, Leader con 24-16.
CONNACHT: Mils Muliaina; Darragh Leader, Robbie Henshaw, Bundee Aki, Danie Poolman; Craig Ronaldson, Kieran Marmion; Denis Buckley, Tom McCartney, Rodney Ah You; Quinn Roux, Aly Muldowney; John Muldoon (capt), Willie Faloon, Eoin McKeon.
Replacements: Dave Heffernan for McCartney (16-22 mins) and for Falloon (70 mins), Miah Nikora for Ronaldson (43 mins), Finlay Bealham for Ah You (51 mins), George Naoupu for McKeon (56 mins), John Cooney, Dave McSharry for Nikora (59-62 mins) and for Muliaina (73 mins), Ultan Dillane for Roux (69 mins). Not used: JP Cooney.
MUNSTER: Simon Zebo; Andrew Conway, Pat Howard, JJ Hanrahan, Ronan O'Mahony; Ian Keatley, Duncan Williams; John Ryan, Duncan Casey, BJ Botha; Billy Holland, Paul O'Connell; Peter O'Mahony (capt), Tommy O'Donnell, CJ Stander.
Replacements: Kevin O'Byrne for Casey (half-time), Eusebio Guinazu for O'Byrne (57-63 mins) and for Ryan (73 mins), Paddy Butler for Stander (63 mins), Dave O'Callaghan for Holland (69 mins), Ivan Dineen for Hanrahan (70 mins), Stephen Archer for Botha (73 mins). Not used: Donncha O'Callaghan, Neil Cronin.
Referee: David Wilkinson (Ireland)