Munster make advances but come up short of their objectives

Away clash with Leinster looms again if Benetton are overcome in quarter-final

Munster 27 Connacht 14

For Johann van Graan, the abiding lessons from his first half campaign as Munster’s head coach was the importance of earning home semi-finals after falling at the penultimate, away hurdles last season.

In the event, they have now again fallen short of those admittedly lofty ambitions this season, finishing second in Conference A behind Glasgow once more.

Hence, following on from their Heineken Champions Cup semi-final defeat against Saracens in Coventry, Munster must negotiate a home quarter-final against Benetton next Saturday to earn a repeat of last season’s semi-final against Leinster at the RDS.

Nonetheless, as van Graan pointed out, this tenth home win out of ten ensured they finished their regular season campaign with eight points more this season over the course of their 21 games.

“Last season I think we had 69 and if I’m not mistaken this time we’re in on 77, which is a huge positive from our side. Also last season we had 11 home games and 10 away games. This season we had 10 home games and 11 away games so that’s a massive positive from our side.”

“The next thing is I believe we have the best home record in the PRO14. I think we’ve 47 out of 50 points if I’m not mistaken, so a huge amount of positives. Obviously if you look at how the pools panned out, I think Glasgow, if you combined the log, finished with the most points and we ended with the second-most points.

“So, look, at the end of the day it comes down to three points over 21 rounds. I’d love to have a home semi-final and one or two results over the last few weeks didn’t go our way but first we look at ourselves and we’ve improved from last season in terms of the log. Fair play to Glasgow, out of the 21 rounds they’re three points ahead of us.

“Most importantly, we know what route we have to take now to get into a final and most importantly we’ve got to win a quarter-final, that’s against Treviso. Obviously Leinster have qualified and if you want to go to a final you’ve got to go past them in Dublin. That’s way in the future. We’ll just give Benetton the respect they deserve.”

In targeting that home semi-final, whereas Munster retained all but four of their Champions Cup semi-final line-up from a week before, Connacht made a dozen changes from the side which sealed their play-off place with a win over Cardiff a fortnight previously.

With their eyes also fixed on next week's quarter-final against Ulster, both Bundee Aki and Jarrad Butler were taken off around the hour mark despite the game still being in the balance.

Overstretched defence

By contrast, even when Munster were compelled to take a back-rower off following the sinbinning of Jeremy Loughman, Arno Botha was withdrawn despite being less than a minute on the pitch, while Peter O'Mahony and CJ Stander were left on for the full 80.

Yet despite Connacht being 18-point underdogs before kick-off, coming into the last ten minutes it was a one-score game, with Munster down to 14 men. Admittedly, Munster’s response was decisive, producing their best spell of rugby for JJ Hanrahan to step through an overstretched defence.

Hanrahan had butchered one attack with an overweight kick through, but underlining the impression from the Saracens game, right now he looks altogether sharper in deed, more confident and in taking the ball to the line, more of a threat than Tyler Bleyendaal.

Not only will most of Connacht’s front-liners be rested for next week’s game, but they could take plenty from this match too.

They took the game to Munster from the off and were still pounding their line at the end with their bright, breezy and enterprising brand of rugby.

Connacht might well have conjured more than the two tries which were ultimately finished off by close-range, close-in forward play. The returning Finlay Bealham adroitly twisted and planted the ball over his head with the help of a hurling glove to protect his injured hand after a hard carry by the impressive Eoin McKeon, who then finished off the second himself in a performance which underlined Connacht's back-row resources.

Indeed, had O'Mahony and co not made such inroads into the Connacht lineout this could have been a very awkward night indeed for the hosts, as Conor Dean also missed a couple of penalties into the stiff breeze in the first half.

Against that, Connacht's scrum caused Munster no end of problems, not least after recourse to both benches, with the departing Peter McCabe and Conor Carey injecting real oomph.

Attacking momentum

As for Munster, they were scrappy at first before gradually building some attacking momentum for Tadhg Beirne to pierce the defensive line off Neil Cronin's popped pass and goose-step Niyi Adeolokun, before Andrew Conway and O'Mahony combined to put Mike Haley over for a 17-7 interval lead.

It was redemption of sorts for Conway, who'd had to immediately apologise to teammates after his Billy Burns moment in the 27th minute when intercepting Tiernan O'Halloran's no-look offload to saunter around the posts too casually.

Returning for his former province, Stephen Fitzgerald capped a fine display by blindsiding Conway and slapping the ball from his grasp before making the touchdown.

Van Graan admitted Conway’s gaff was unacceptable, but credited him for his apology and seeking to make amends, while Friend hailed Fitzgerald.

“It was brilliant. What was more impressive was that first carry. He just put his head down and it was like he was trying to run through a brick wall. He did it three or four times. The energy he showed today was what we have been looking for.

“We talked about bounce and having more energy, and getting back on your feet and getting into the game, and asking questions. Fitzy was one that did that really well tonight.”

Scoring sequence: 21 mins Bleyendaal pen 3-0; 24 mins Bealham try, Dean con 3-7; 31 mins Beirne try, Bleyenbaal con 10-7; 37 mins Haley try, Bleyendaal con 17-7; 56 mins Bleyendaal pen 20-7; 70 mins McKeon try, Dean con 20-14; 75 mins Hanrahan try and con 27-14.

MUNSTER: Mike Haley; Andrew Conway, Chris Farrell, Dan Goggin, Calvin Nash; Tyler Bleyendaal, Neil Cronin; Dave Kilcoyne, Niall Scannell, Stephen Archer; Jean Kleyn, Tadhg Beirne; Peter O'Mahony (capt), Chris Cloete, CJ Stander. Replacements: Jeremy Loughman for Kilcoyne, John Ryan for Archer (both 53 mins), Rhys Marshall for Scannell, Billy Holland for Kleyn, Arno Botha for Cloete, JJ Hanrahan for Bleyendaal, Sammy Arnold for Farrell (all 68 mins), Kilcoyne for Botha (69-79 mins), Farrell for Goggin (71 mins), Craig Casey for Cronin (76 mins).  Sinbinned – Loughman (69-79 mins)

CONNACHT: Tiernan O'Halloran, Niyi Adeolokun, Bundee Aki, Tom Daly, Stephen Fitzgerald, Conor Dean, Kieran Marmion; Matthew Burke, Tom McCartney, Finlay Bealham, Joe Maksymiw, James Cannon, Eoin McKeon, Jarrad Butler (Capt), Robin Copleand.  Replacements: Shane Delahunt for McCartney (45 mins), Peter McCabe for Burke, Conor Carey for Bealham (both 49 mins), Eoghan Masterson for Cannon (57 mins), Eoin Griffin for Aki (59 mins). Caolin Blade for Marmion, Paul Boyle for Butler (both 64 mins), Darragh Leader for O'Halloran (73 mins).

 Referee: Frank Murphy (IRFU).

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