Munster 20 Connacht 17
Munster confirmed a place in the Pro14 final with a hard fought victory in a thoroughly entertaining contest. Once the initial disappointment subsides Connacht should be proud of what was a gutsy effort, albeit that they will rue a lack of discipline that ultimately cost them dearly.
The Munster bench had a significant impact on ensuring the win - providing direction and game management - in what was a fitful performance overall. Mike Haley’s class shone through and he scored a crucial try, while James Cronin was another to catch the eye.
The forward exchanges were keenly disputed but there was no doubting the game's outstanding performer, Connacht secondrow, Gavin Thornbury. His general play was superb while along with the excellent Ultan Dillane, they managed to turn over seven Munster lineouts. A little bit more control at crucial times could have changed the result in favour of the western province.
Thornbury enjoyed a bright start to the match, his aerial presence forcing Munster hooker Niall Scannell to overthrow the first lineout of the match and less than 60 seconds later he blocked down Ben Healy's attempted clearance kick, giving Connacht a five metre scrum.
What ensued brought training ground precision to the match environment. Caolin Blade hit Tom Daly, the centre flipped the ball to Jack Carty on the loop and as the Munster defence squeezed in towards the ball, the outhalf, checked and then had the vision and the skill to find Matt Healy who rode a despairing tackle as he touched down for his 59th try in Connacht colours. Carty tagged on the conversion.
It was an impressive statement of intent from the visitors but the concession of a couple of penalties allowed Munster to finally get a foothold in terms of possession and position on the pitch.
Niall Scannell broke powerfully from a lineout but Paul Boyle did brilliantly to thwart what looked like a certain try one ruck later and then seconds later Craig Casey's pass to Healy was a little undercooked and Connacht were able to win a penalty turnover at the ruck.
It was a brief respite, Jack O'Donoghue turned over a Connacht lineout and Munster were soon hunting again in the Connacht 22, the pressure rewarded when James Cronin forced his way over from close range after his teammates - Chris Farrell made the important metres initially - softened up the fringe defence. Ben Healy added the conversion and the teams were level, 7-7 after 22 minutes.
Thornbury was once again prominent as the visitors regained the lead as he blocked down Casey’s attempted clearance. Connacht eventually regained possession and when Munster transgressed at a ruck, Carty kicked the penalty. The visitors were causing the Munster lineout problems in the opening half an hour, pinching three.
Connacht’s intent to get the ball wide was laudable but the odd lapse in passing accuracy and one or two loose kicks squandered promising field position. With the clock in the red flanker Conor Oliver was penalised for a late tackle on Munster scrumhalf Casey but Ben Healy couldn’t avail of the long range penalty opportunity with the last kick of the half.
The visitors would have gleaned confidence from the opening 40 minutes, aware that if they could improve discipline and tidy up one or two things in attack, the victory they craved would be attainable. Munster coach Johann van Graan would have been unhappy with his team’s failure to do the basics, a little scrappy and disjointed in the face of the visitors’ bristling aggression.
Whatever he said had the desired effect because Munster started the second half with purpose and Ben Healy levelled matters when Oliver was penalised and then less than a minute later Bundee Aki’s one-handed intercept attempt resulted in a yellow card following television match official Joy Neville’s intervention.
Dillane was next to help himself to a Munster throw and then the outstanding Thornbury forced a penalty turnover at a ruck. Carty missed touch but Munster’s misfiring lineout and a ruck penalty limited the damage. Aki returned in time to watch Ben Healy miss another long range penalty.
Van Graan summoned Kevin O'Byrne, Jean Kleyn, Damian de Allende and Joey Carbery from the bench but it was Mike Haley who produced a wonderful virtuoso moment; he caught a high ball, fended off Dave Heffernan, chipped over Tiernan O'Halloran and re-gathered to cross for a try. Carbery added the conversion to make it 17-10.
If this was to be a test of Connacht's mettle, they responded brilliantly. Carty's beautiful grubber was snapped up by Matt Healy and as Connacht threatened the Munster line, Chris Cloete was penalised and received a yellow card. The visitors pummelled away until Boyle's footwork earned a chink of light and he forced his way over.
Carty converted but a soft penalty conceded by Aki gave Carbery the chance to regain the lead at 20-17 after 67 minutes. Munster got the benefit of one or two refereeing decisions that were questionable as Connacht pressed hard but just began to run out of energy first and then ideas; a valiant effort.
Scoring sequence - 4 mins: M Healy try, Carty conversion, 0-7; 22 mins: Cronin try, B Healy conversion, 7-7; 27 mins: Carty penalty, 7-10. Half-time: 7-10. 43 mins: B Healy penalty, 10-10; 57 mins: Haley try, Carbery conversion, 17-10; 63 mins: Boyle try, Carty conversion, 17-17; 67 mins: Carbery penalty, 20-17.
MUNSTER: M Haley; A Conway, C Farrell, R Scannell, S Daly; B Healy, C Casey; J Cronin, N Scannell, S Archer; F Wycherley, B Holland (capt); J O'Donoghue, C Cloete, G Coombes. Replacements: K O'Byrne for N Scannell 52 mins; D de Allende for R Scannell 52 mins; J Carbery for Healy 52 mins; J Kleyn for Wycherley 52 mins; J Ryan for Archer 59 mins; J Loughman for Cronin 68 mins; J O'Sullivan for O'Donoghue 72 mins.
CONNACHT: T O'Halloran; J Porch, T Daly, B Aki, M Healy; J Carty, C Blade; D Buckley, D Heffernan, F Bealham; U Dillane, G Thornbury; J Butler (capt), C Oliver, P Boyle. Replacements: A Wootton for O'Halloran 59 mins; J Aungier for Bealham 59 mins; S Delahunt for Heffernan 68 mins; K Marmion for Blade 68 mins; E Masterson for Boyle 68 mins.
Referee: C Busby (Ireland)
Yellow card: B Aki (Connacht) 44 mins. C Cloete (Munster) 60 mins.