Connacht 24 Munster 31
It’s a measure of Munster’s heightened respect for Connacht that not only did they arrive in Galway locked and fairly loaded for this finale to the three-series festive programme of interpros, but they produced their best performance of the season as well.
It's also says much about Connacht's improvement this season that despite losing prop Denis Buckley to a stomach bug on the day he was to have made his 150th appearance, in addition to Bundee Aki and Jarrad Butler, that Munster needed to be right on their game.
From the moment that the selections were unveiled on Friday lunchtime, Andy Friend had a fair idea what Munster were bringing up the M18.
“We saw the team come out and we went: ‘righto, there you go fellas, they are respecting you’. Which is good. You want that. But again I thought our blokes stood up to that and gave it their best shot.”
Connacht did that and more, laying down the gauntlet at the start of each half through a big defensive set which culminated in Tom Farrell ripping the ball from Arno Botha and scoring from halfway, before then putting the lively Cian Kelleher away.
They also withstood all manner of heavy duty blows from Munster to secure a bonus point when Farrell and Colby Fainga'a offloaded in turn for Jack Carty to score from 40 metres out.
However, with Conor Murray using all his experience, Munster saw out the end game calmly to stifle the hopes of most in an 8,124 capacity crowd of the most improbable of draws.
In truth even before unleashing Murray, CJ Stander, David Kilcoyne et al off the bench for the last half-hour, the foundations of Munster's win had been laid by their clinical response to those early Connacht tries in each half.
Joey Carbery, very assured in all he did and, like Carty, 100per cent off the tee, along with Dan Goggin, Chris Farrell, effective in pretty much everything he did, and Alex Wootton, all found space in behind with clever kicks. Whether forcing an attacking throw or forcing Connacht to exit, this allowed Munster to get their heavyweight pack rumbling, especially through their potent maul.
It also led to tries by a rested and re-energised Peter O'Mahony, who was immense and, as usual, came up with a host of big plays, and a brace by Goggin, each set up by Alby Mathewson.
The introduction of Tyler Bleyendaal allowed Munster to give Carbery the final quarter at fullback, and following more rumbling by the pack he reveled in the space this afforded him to score off Bleyendaal's cut-out pass for the bonus-point try.
Johann van Graan hailed Munster’s sharpened ability to take their chances and their accuracy. “I thought our maul went really well tonight and that bought us penalties and Joey kicked it to touch. It buys you field position and I thought we were pretty clinical in the 22 and both nines and 10s managed the game pretty well down there.
“We didn’t over play. Once their defence was up we turned them and put pressure on their lineout, they kicked it out and we went again. So, the game management was pretty good tonight.”
Munster enjoyed a 61 per cent territorial advantage in the first half, and 53 per cent in the second. Friend and his coaching ticket like to keep the ‘learnings’ from any game to one or two, and here the lesson was not only clear but applied a little in the second period.
“The way they controlled territory there tonight was pretty good,” said Friend. “Our second half we were much better at that. But virtually every ball that hit boot was clinical. We are working on that at the moment. In the second half we were much, much better. But the way they controlled that territory was outstanding.”
In a high quality game on a perfect night for rugby, Connacht stayed in touch thanks to some big defensive shifts, notably by Gavin Thornbury (19 tackles), Paul Boyle and Fainga'a (18 apiece) – although these were all eclipsed by the ravenous Tommy O'Donnell (22) on his return from injury.
While Munster had more ballast up front, and Tadhg Beirne complemented O'Mahony's work at the breakdown, Connacht were always a threat on the ball. They conjured 10 line breaks to six, the first by the debutant Tom Daly, one of six Connacht players honed for the pro game by Lansdowne, who slotted in very well.
In Tom Farrell they also had the game’s most potent player. In scoring one and being the creative force for the other two tries, Farrell made 101 metres from 14 carries, making two line breaks and three offloads, and beating four defenders.
"I thought he was dynamic again today," said Friend. "The bloke inside him, on his first cap, was good too. It's nice to have Tom Daly, but Tommy Farrell, every time he touches the ball he's a handful. He's playing some good rugby."
Asked at what point did he realise he had a bit of a gem in Farrell, another of those ex-Lansdowne men, Friend said: “Pretty early on, but we have a lot of gems. This bloke here beside me [Boyle] is a gem too. We’ve got young Bladey [Caolin Blade], who has been a gem all year. Jack Carty has been a gem. We’ve got some real beauties across the team, so it’s a team of gems, honestly, and we’ve just got to keep polishing them and giving them the confidence to play and they’ll keep producing some of the footy they’re playing.”
SCORING SEQUENCE: 10 mins T Farrell try, Carty con 7-0; 17: O'Mahony try, Carbery con 7-7; 25: Goggin try, Carbery con 7-14; 40: Carty pen 10-14; (half-time 10-14); 41: Kelleher try, Carty con 17-14; 49: Goggin try, Carbery con 17-21; 57: Carbery pen 17-24; 64: Carbery try, con 17-31; 74: Carty try, con 24-31.
CONNACHT: Darragh Leader; Cian Kelleher, Tom Farrell, Tom Daly, Matt Healy; Jack Carty, Caolin Blade; Peter McCabe, Dave Heffernan (capt), Dominic Robertson-McCoy; Gavin Thornbury, Quinn Roux; Paul Boyle, Colby Fainga'a, Eoghan Masterson.
Replacements: Finlay Bealham for Robertson-McCoy (42 mins), Tom McCartney for Heffernan (54), Ultan Dillane for Roux (58), Matthew Burke for McCabe (59), Cillian Gallagher for Masterson, Angus Lloyd for Blade (both 65), David Horwitz for Daly (72 , Colm de Buitlear for Kelleher (75).
MUNSTER: Andrew Conway; Keith Earls, Chris Farrell, Dan Goggin, Alex Wootton; Joey Carbery, Alby Mathewson; Jeremy Loughman, Niall Scannell, John Ryan; Jean Kleyn, Tadhg Beirne; Peter O'Mahony (capt), Tommy O'Donnell, Arno Botha.
Replacements: Stephen Archer for Ryan (40 mins),Conor Murray for Mathewson (50), CJ Stander for Botha (52), Tyler Bleyendaal for Wootton (60), Dave Kilcoyne for Loughman (61), Billy Holland for O'Mahony (65), Kevin O'Byrne for Scannell (66), Sam Arnold for Goggin (75).
Referee: Mike Adamson (SRU).