On a dreadful night, Connacht espoused maturity and real grit to earn their first win over the Reds since 2008.
The gale force winds and the bucketing sheets of rain did not stop the crowds packing out the Sportsground for the biggest game to date for each side in the Pro12.And what a game it was!
Munster came into the contest full of confidence after a thumping win over Leinster in Thomond Park. Whereas the Westerners were hoping to stop the rot after two consecutive inter-pro defeats and they were hoping to cling onto the vital sixth place in the table.
The first minutes, as you would expect from an Irish derby, were attritional as both sides looked to impose themselves physically. Connacht were intent on holding onto the ball as they knew it would have been futile kicking into the hurricane that battered the ground.
However, this played into Munster’s hands as excellent work on the ground by captain, Peter O’Mahony, led to referee, David Wilkinson, awarding a penalty to the away side.
Despite the brutal conditions, Ian Keatley made no mistake with his effort handing Munster a 3-0 lead after 7 minutes. And it was to get better for the Reds three minutes later when O’Mahony went over for the try.
After forcing the home side into touch five metres out, the Southern province powerfully mauled their way towards the try line and in for the try.
Keatley nailed the difficult conversion, with a boomerang kick, for a 10-0 advantage.
And the Dublin born flyhalf was to increase the difference between the sides with another three points from the boot as Wilkinson interpreted that Connacht were offside from a knock-on.
The home crowd was stunned into silence as Munster utterly dominated. They smashed into anyone who was wearing green, dictating the pace of play and the tackle area. The Westerners seemed to have no clue as to how to puncture the visitors’ defence
Although Connacht were getting very little change out of the red brick wall, crucially they held onto the possession stemming the flow of points.
They eventually managed to trouble the scoreboard after half an hour and what a beauty it was!
From a lineout, the ball was held in the maul until scrumhalf, Kieran Marmion, whipped the ball out wide to Craig Ronaldson. The fly half produced a deft chip over the Munster defensive line and the ball held up perfectly in the wind for the on rushing Robbie Henshaw to collect.
The Ireland centre then offloaded to Marmion who ran an excellent tracking line and the Barking born man scampered home to put Connacht on the score sheet much to the delight of the majority in the Sportsground.
Ronaldson, with the assistance of Darragh Leader holding the ball in place, slotted the conversion into the headwind to narrow the arrears to six points after 31 minutes. (7-13).
The crowd had found their voice and Lam’s men took to their challenge with renewed vigour. But Munster were not going to lie down and launched an attack of their own.
From a lineout in the home 22, Foley’s men began to use the maul which had served them so well earlier on in the match. The Westerners replied to it this time and several more Munster waves until Connacht centre, Bundee Aki, nearly decapitated fullback, Simon Zebo. Referee, Wilkinson, after consultation with his touch judge, decided it was only a warning for the Kiwi.
Keatley punished Aki’s indiscretion to stretch the lead back to nine points and that was the way it stayed until halftime. 16-7 was probably a fair reflection of the play in the first forty.
After forgetting to come out of the changing in the first half, Connacht exploded into the second period thanks to a try from Ronaldson.
Henshaw again was at the forefront as he burst through the Munster midfield and passed to Aki in the 22. Aki was brought five metres out but quick ball ensued from the ruck and Marmion was able to send Ronaldson over for the score.
The whistle blower decided to refer the try to the TMO but replays confirmed the outhalf had grounded the ball. However, Ronaldson had to leave the paddock after sustaining a blow to the head.
Leader took over kicking duties and bisected the posts to narrow the gap to two points after 43 minutes. (14-16).
The dynamic duo of Aki and Henshaw were causing all sorts of problems and again they unlocked the Southerners’ defence in midfield on the 50th minute mark. The Connacht pack poured forward and the crowd sensed another score but with an overlap created, replacement flyhalf, Miah Nikora, had a case of butter fingers and the chance was lost.
That botched opportunity did not discourage the home side and they were handed the possibility of going into the lead for the first time after the referee pinged scrumhalf, Duncan Williams, for being offside from a knock-on.
Nikora made up for his earlier error and stroked the ball through the posts for a one point lead to the Westerners. (17-16).
Connacht were rampant and the waves of green attack kept coming.
A scrum in the visitors’ 22 was wheeled and Marmion found himself in a one-on-one with wing, Andrew Conway. The scrumhalf sidestepped the defender and only an heroic tackle by O’Mahony stopped Marmion from scoring.
But it was only a temporary delay as a few phases later lock, Aly Muldowney, crashed over from six inches out. Leader converted and left the score at 24-16 to the Westerners after 62 minutes.
To Munster’s credit they didn’t fold as they struggled to get out of their own half. They finally managed to gain some territory with ten minutes to go thanks to a kick from Keatley to the corner.
However, a problem for Foley’s men has been their bluntness in attack and again it proved to be their undoing here as a sustained period of phases was repelled by Connacht’s courageous defence.
Lam’s troops eventually turned the ball over and booted it away to safety.
Wilkinson blew his whistle and the Sportground rejoiced.
After the game captain, John Muldoon, spoke of the importance of Kieron Marmion’s score before the break, “it put a different perspective on the game. You’re not going in trailing by 16 points but by nine and it gives you real hope!”
Pat Lam said in the after match press conference that he told the team that they were going to win. He said, “we were gutted to lose the Leinster and Ulster games and we highlighted all the opportunities that we missed (in those games). We channeled that frustration tonight and got the win. I’m very proud of the boys!”
Tries – Marmion, Ronaldson, Muldowney
Cons – Ronaldson, Leader (2)
Pens – Nikora
Tries – O’Mahony
Cons – Keatley (3)
Pens – Keatley
15 Mils Muliaina, 14 Darragh Leader, 13 Robbie Henshaw, 12 Bundee Aki, 11 Danie Poolman, 10 Craig Ronaldson, 9 Kieran Marmion, 1 Denis Buckley, 2 Tom McCartney, 3 Rodney Ah You, 4 Quinn Roux, 5 Aly Muldowney 6 John Muldoon (c), 7 Willie Faloon, 8 Eoin McKeon
16 Dave Heffernan, 17 JP Cooney, 18 Finlay Bealham, 19, Ultan Dillane, 20 George Naoupu, 21 John Cooney, 22 Miah Nikora, 23 Dave McSharry
15 Simon Zebo, 14 Andrew Conway, 13Patrick Howard, 12 JJ Hanrahan, 11 Ronan O’Mahony, 10 Ian Keatley, 9 Duncan Williams, 1 John Ryan, 2 Duncan Casey, 3 BJ Botha, 4 Billy Holland, 5 Paul O’Connell, 6 Peter O’Mahony (c), 7 Tommy O’Donnell, 8 CJ Stander
16 Kevin O’Byrne, 17 Eusebio Guinazu, 18 Stephen Archer, 19 Donnacha O’Callaghan, 20 Dave O’Callaghan, 21 Neil Cronin, 22 Paddy Butler, 23 Ivan Dineen