Connacht 35 Munster 14
This evening’s comfortable defeat of a disappointing Munster in Galway allowed the westerners claim a season’s double over their neighbours, but that was the least of it, writes Brendan O’Brien.
Champions Cup rugby, long an inevitability, became a mathematical certainty. A Guinness PRO12 play-off is still to be officially claimed, but don’t worry about that: the only question now is if they can claim a home berth for the play-offs.
This four-try bonus-point win allowed the hosts to leapfrog back to second in the table, over a Glasgow side which had demolished Scarlets in Wales earlier in the evening. Next on the list of assignments? Treviso away. That’ll do nicely.
For Munster, it is fast approaching the point of no return. This latest loss leaves them seventh in the table, adrift of Edinburgh on a points difference margin that stretched further into arrears thanks to an 18-point reversal that they actually began pretty well.
Munster laid the gauntlet down from the start, opting to run the ball at almost every opportunity in the opening five minutes under blue skies and sunshine. That included ball used from inside their own 22 and it made for a fantastic first-half of rugby.
Shane O’Leary managed two penalties for the hosts inside the first eighteen minutes, but that quarter belonged to a Munster team that finally granted coach Anthony Foley’s wishes by making full use of their opportunities, limited though they were.
They were clinical in claiming the game’s first two tries, after eleven and 24 minutes. Simon Zebo scored the first, taking a sublime line for an inside pass from Jack O’Donoghue after young out-half Johnny Holland made the initial break.
The second was less artistic, but just as effective: hooker Mike Sherry rumbling over from a maul near Connacht’s left corner after a penalty and resultant lineout from five metres out. Munster led 14-6 at that point with Holland converting both.
Connacht were only getting started.
Kieran Marmion dropped the ball and a certain try after a blinding Bundee Aki break and pass and it looked ominous when, minutes later, Connacht were turned over inches from the Munster line and then Matt Healy was pinged in the opposition 22 for not releasing in the tackle.
Munster would end the half with only 13 men on the pitch. James Cronin was the first to leave them short after referee Ben Whitehouse grew weary of indiscretions at the scrum and Billy Holland followed four minutes later after illegally halting Connacht’s progress on their try line.
Both sinbinnings were followed by a try.
Niyi Adeolokun claimed the first, the wing benefiting from a dropped ball and a subsequent temporary pause in a Munster rearguard that was, until then, soaking up the waves of attacks in their 22 with a fair degree of comfort.
The second came courtesy of a penalty try moments after Holland’s exit. Again, both five-pointers were supplemented by successful conversions and it left the contest perfectly poised 20-14 to the home team on a perfect evening for entertaining rugby.
Unfortunately, there was more in the way of spills than thrills in the second-half, but there was still more than enough in the way of incident which, added to the stakes at play, ensured that this remained a must-watch through to deep in the last quarter.
Connacht were deserving winners, but the game turned on two incidents.
With 55 minutes played Adeolokun went over after a Robbie Henshaw grubber and a slip from Darren Sweetnam opened the door. There was more than the hint of a knock-on, but the TMO looked long and hard at it and gave a thumbs up.
Seven minutes later and Francis Saili literally flew over the Connacht cover and beyond the try line. It was right beside the posts, too, but seven points went abegging as the centre dropped the ball in the process and the gap remained at eleven.
Not quite game, set and match.
That came five minutes later when newly-minted Ireland prop Finlay Bealham was at the end of the chain which left Munster exposed under their own posts. That and O’Leary’s conversion left it 32-14 and with 13 minutes of dead air to fill before the end.
The crowd entertained themselves from that point on.
The party in Connacht is only getting started.
Connacht: R Henshaw; N Adeolokun, B Aki, P Robb, M Healy; S O’Leary, K Marmion; D Buckley, T McCartney, F Bealham; U Dillane, A Muldowney; S O’Brien, E McKeon, J Muldoon. Replacements: A Browne for Muldowney (63); JP Cooney for Bealham (67); F Carr for Aki (69); J Connolly for O’Brien (71);J Harris-Wright for Buckley and R Loughney for T McCartney (both 74); J Carty for Robb (74).
Munster: S Zebo; D Sweetnam, F Saili, R Scannell, K Earls; J Holland, C Murray; J Cronin, M Sherry, S Archer; D Ryan, B Holland; CJ Stander, T O’Donnell, J O’Donoghue. Replacements: N Scannell for Cronin, D Kilcoyne for Sherry and A Conway for Sweetnam (all 55); I Keatley for J Holland (67); J Ryan for Archer (69); J Coughlan for Ryan (69).
Referee: B Whitehouse (WRU).