Abraham Papali’i Connacht debut proves short-lived but full of promise

Johann van Graan’s Munster have a tight turnaround before Leinster semi-final

Connacht’s Abraham Papali’i is red carded by referee Frank Murphy. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

Connacht’s Abraham Papali’i is red carded by referee Frank Murphy. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

 

Welcome to Ireland, Abraham Papali’i. This is not the last we shall see of Connacht’s marauding Aucklander, who took the old ‘swing from the hip’ philosophy a little too literally to help Munster march on to Friday night’s Pro 14 semi-final against a seemingly invincible Leinster.

“It’s the shortest turnaround that we’ve had in years,” complained Munster coach Johann van Graan. “Those are the cards we’ve been dealt, so we’ll get back to Limerick and Cork tonight, literally have one training session and we’re back here on Thursday.”

Back for their latest attempt to exorcise the horror of semi-final meltdowns.

“All parts of your game need to fire. You are playing a team who will be well rested and we have to come to their backyard again but, look, that’s something we set out at the beginning of the year, get to a semi-final first and hopefully take the next step.”

The South African was adamant that his classy Springbok centre Damian de Allende – so crucial to Munster taking that next step – is injury-free despite leaving the 49-12 whipping of Connacht with 10 minutes to play.

“The game was won and we just tried to protect him. He hasn’t played a lot of rugby. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with him.”

It helped that Connacht were already down to 13.

Ulster, despite their torrid return to action that saw them wiped by a second string Leinster, will contest the other semi-final against Edinburgh at Murrayfield on Saturday.

Before moving on, however, we must reflect on a hair-raising Sunday afternoon up Lansdowne Road. All it lacked was a few alickadoos behind the posts roaring abuse at referee Frank Murphy. The Cork man was as busy as his playing days at scrumhalf, for both Munster and Connacht, dishing out three yellow cards and two reds in the first half alone.

All the decisions seemed warranted with the timing of each card appearing to ruin or resurrect the contest.

Papali’i was dismissed on 26 minutes for almost decapitating Conor Murray while the tetchy affair almost got out of control when Shane Delahunt walked for catching CJ Stander’s neck with his forearm.

Munster’s Damian de Allende tackles Bundee Aki. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho
Munster’s Damian de Allende tackles Bundee Aki. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

“You saw that first carry,” said Connacht coach Andy Friend. “Ab bumps three or four. There is a lot to like about what Abraham Papali’i brings to Connacht rugby. What we need to be able to control is his discipline and make sure he doesn’t get on the wrong side of referees.”

Was it his Rugby League mentality or just unlucky?

“He is a big man and there is a small man – well, a smaller man – running into him. He just needs to lower that body height. That’s something I know people will be working with him on.

“Ab has only been with us three weeks and we already see that he is very coachable. He is actually a very knowledgeable rugby player. I have no doubt he will fix that. And once he fixes that he is a big bulking body that can dent opposition.”

Munster and Murphy threw Connacht a lifeline by squaring the numbers before half-time after the outstanding Tadhg Beirne followed Peter O’Mahony into the sin bin.

At one stage we had 13 against 13 and a stirring Bundee Aki cameo lobbed into the fray. The game had everything, from scintillating tries by Andrew Conway to a spate of scuffles, everything except the guttural roar of the crowd.

In the end Connacht knobbled themselves with atrocious indiscipline, at least 20 penalties conceded, to earn precisely what they deserved. A tanking.

“I said to the players at the end of the game: ‘I will never doubt your courage fellas. I will never doubt how brave you are and how hard you work. That is part of our DNA. What we need to become is a lot smarter,’” Friend concluded. “If we add smarts to that we become a really dangerous rugby side.”

No doubt, but for now Connacht disappear from view. It is knockout rugby from here until the next lockdown.

In contrast to Van Graan noting obstacles, like a mini-Covid shutdown and the quick turnaround, Ulster chief Dan McFarland only sees a misfiring team. Their academy squad had a genuine cluster last week – that threatened to take down the entire tournament – but McFarland refused to grab onto these straws following another interpro loss.

“It’s not a factor,” said McFarland. “The biggest thing is waiting for your test results. It plays on my mind, not sure about the others. It is what it is. It has played on my mind every week since we have been back or every time we have had testings since we have been back. It’s difficult times for that side of things but we are getting used to it.”

Ulster stumble over to Edinburgh with injury concerns around Jacob Stockdale – who looked every inch an international standard fullback – and Jordi Murphy but the former does not sound serious.

“Jacob got a couple of bangs on his lower leg, around his shin. My understanding is that it is not a strain or anything. I’d be pretty hopeful that he would be alright.”

They need him.

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