There is a perception among Connacht supporters that Leinster is the team they love to defeat, Ulster is the side they can’t beat and Munster’s scalp is the one they treasure most of all.
Today: Thomond Park, 7.45pm
Referee: David Wilkinson (IRFU)
Bet: Munster 1/7 Connacht 9/2 Draw 25/1
And while facts don’t quite illustrate that, victory over their nearest neighbours is cherished. True, they have beaten Leinster more often than the other two with eight wins in 31 games, but they have now chalked up five victories apiece against Ulster and Munster in the professional era.
They still haven’t won in Ravenhill since 1960 and came agonisingly close on New Year’s Day to a first ever victory in the RDS but even when those frontiers are crossed it is doubtful that they will have quite the same impact as the initial wins over Munster.
Two years ago a first win in Thomond Park since 1986 was the start of a sequence of results which ended with John Muldoon lifting the PRO12 trophy above his head at Murrayfield at the end of that season.
Muldoon was also on board when Connacht, after 11 unsuccessful attempts, finally defeated Munster for the first time in the professional era when they beat them 12-6 at the Sportsground in December 2008.
“That win was a pivotal moment for Connacht,” said Michael Swift, who retired in 2015 after 264 league and European games over a decade and a half of service. “We had beaten everyone else at some stage, even Leinster away. We had beaten Leinster and Ulster a few times at the Sportsground but just couldn’t seem to get across the line against Munster, even though we were close many times.
“There were a couple of 3-0 home defeats and then one time when we scored 27 points in Musgrave Park in Cork, it still ended in a draw. We knew we had to earn respect and just knew that was one team we needed to beat to earn it.
“You also got the impression they wouldn’t really respect you until you beat them.” Isolated wins over Leinster and Ulster and some other good results in the league at the Sportsground, coupled with a few good runs in the Challenge Cup, ensured a level of progress but that upwards trajectory got a big shot in the arm when they finally ousted Munster.
“We marked it down as one of our goals at the start of the season. We knew we were close to beating them even though they were strong contenders each year for the Heineken Cup, but it meant a lot to us to finally get that result,” added Swift.
Ian Keatley, out-half this evening for Munster, was the hero for Connacht when he kicked four penalties in that Christmas clash nine years ago.
The only response from Munster, with eleven of the side which had run the All Blacks close the previous month, was a couple of penalties from Australian Paul Warwick, who had joined them from Connacht.
Aside from Muldoon and Keatley, the only other survivor from that clash who will be playing this evening in Thomond Park is Keith Earls.
Current Leinster hooker Sean Cronin, former Irish lock Mike McCarthy and current referee Frank Murphy were among those who featured for Connacht that day.
“I remember the celebrations at the end, we really felt we had crossed a line. It probably didn’t mean a huge deal of difference in the placings on the league table but it certainly meant a lot to us. It was a step, a big step, on where we wanted to go,” added Swift.
“There was a photograph at the end of the game of Liam Bibo and Frank Murphy celebrating. I’m not sure if it is still there but it used to be at the top of the stairs in the clubhouse at the Sportsground, it was a day we sort of never forgot.” Swift went on to taste another win over Munster, a 24-16 win in his final season. The following season Connacht beat them home and away on their way to silverware, an 18-12 triumph in Thomond Park and thumping 35-14 victory at the Sportsground just weeks before their best day ever in Murrayfield.
A 20-16 win earlier this season at the Sportsground, despite a slow start to the campaign, showed that the barrier is no longer as high. But yet, this is a fixture where Connacht have failed to score in five of the 30 clashes, with less than ten points scored in five other games.
“It will always be a big fixture, the only difference now is that respect has been earned. That’s really all that ever mattered,” added Swift.
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