Munster took pole position of Conference A in the Guinness PRO14 on Saturday night as they scored a bonus-point victory against interprovincial rivals Connacht and banished their poor away form.
Following on from a home victory over league champions Leinster the previous weekend it marked a perfect end to the festive season and gave Johann van Graan’s side the perfect springboard into the final two pool games of the Heineken Champions Cup with a trip to Gloucester on the cards next Friday.
Two tries from centre Dan Goggin followed Peter O’Mahony’s opening score with man of the match Joey Carbery crowning a perfect goal-kicking performance with an excellent fourth try of the night for the visitors.
Yet it had been a tight, hard-fought contest and Connacht would have been hard done by not to have earned their losing bonus point.
Both sides had made changes from their home league victories last weekend, Connacht replacing six starters from the win over Ulster, Munster seven after beating Leinster at Thomond Park.
Yet Connacht were forced into another late change as loosehead prop Denis Buckley was withdrawn from the matchday squad with a stomach bug, putting his 150th appearance for the province on hold. Buckley was replaced in the front row by former Munster prop Peter McCabe with Matthew Burke moving onto the bench.
The addition of an academy player to the home bench further bolstered the impression that Munster had the stronger, certainly more experienced bench with Conor Murray, CJ Stander among five internationals, and one of them, lock Billy Holland, primed for his 200th appearance for his home province.
With Conference A leaders Glasgow slipping to a third straight defeat earlier in the day, losing 20-17 at Benetton Rugby in Italy, Munster were handed the chance to go top of the table and cap a Christmas and New Year block of games in fine style after back-to-back losses at Castres and Ulster.
Yet their victory over Leinster seven days earlier had left plenty of room for improvement and the short road trip to Galway was not the ideal place to solve their poor run of away form this season.
After a blistering opening 10 minutes, though, it was Connacht, looking to leapfrog Munster in the table from third to second place, who struck first blood, centre Tom Farrell stripping opposing No.8 Arno Botha in contact and racing clear from the 10-metre line to score under the posts, Jack Carty with the simplest of conversions to put the home side into a 7-0 lead.
It was an advantage that lasted just six minutes though as Munster upped the tempo. Left wing Alex Wootton jabbed a kick into the 22 which proved pivotal as Munster got in behind the hosts' defensive line with van Graan’s side made the most of quick ruck ball to stretch Connacht before right wing Keith Earls pounced on the left, offloading to captain Peter O’Mahony whose dive for the line brought a deserved try. Joey Carbery’s conversion from out wide levelled the scores and it kick-started a lengthy spell of first-half dominance by Munster.
Dan Goggin grabbed the second try, moments after John Ryan had been denied a try, ruled out by the TMO for coming up short. Munster quickly rebounded, the resulting five-metre scrum seeing scrum-half Alby Mathewson pass to his inside centre who collected and crashed through Tom Daly to score. Carbery added the conversion to put Munster into a 14-7 lead on 25 minutes.
Munster looked to be taking that cushion into the break but when O’Mahony was penalised at a ruck on the stroke of half-time the impressive Carty made no mistake from long range and his penalty narrowed the deficit to 14-10 to end the opening period.
It proved to be a real momentum changer as the second half began with Connacht regaining the lead, their outside backs undoing Munster’s wide defence as Daly, a debutant on loan from Leinster, linked with centre partner Tom Farrell to releaser right wing Cian Kelleher who made no mistake in scoring the go-ahead try on 41 minutes, Carty’s conversion nudging the lead out to 17-14.
Given Munster’s fragility away from home that might have marked the pivotal moment of the game but Munster quickly regathered and put together some great flowing rugby to retake the lead. Earls was the spark, creating space on halfway with an arcing run behind the line before finding contact and releasing Chris Farrell with an excellent offload. Farrell followed suit, his offload in midfield finding Wootton who carried to the 22, Mathewson recycling the ball to Tadgh Beirne, whose strong carry took him to the five-metre line from where the scrum-half sent a long-range pass out left to the unopposed Goggin for the simplest of catches and touchdowns.
Carbery added the conversion as boos rang out from a sell-out home crowd of 8,129 convinced Mathewson’s pass had been forward but with referee Mike Adamson unmoved, the Munster fly-half coolly kicked the extra points and soon after added a penalty.
Mathewson was replaced by Murray and Botha by Stander as Munster looked to finish strongly, Dave Kilcoyne and Tyler Bleyendaal also adding firepower with Holland introduced for his 200th appearance
Carbery would get a further seven points, this time from full-back after Bleyendaal was introduced at fly-half. It was Bleyendaal’s skip pass out right that gave Carbery the space to work his magic, excellent footwork leaving Matt Healy for dead to bring up the fourth try of the night for the visitors and a bonus point, Carbery adding to his strong performance with a fifth successful kick from five as Munster stretched their lead to 31-17 with 15 minutes to go.
Plenty of time for Connacht to mount a fightback. They had kicked Christmas off throwing away victory at the death to Leinster and now they wanted to do the same to Munster. And when Colby Fainga’a made a strong carry through midfield his offload released Carty to score a try that raised the roof on the Sportsground’s Clan Terrace. He converted his own score to make it a seven-point game with seven minutes remaining. It was good enough for a losing bonus-point but as much as Connacht wanted more, Munster kept their composure to see out the game.
CONNACHT: D Leader; C Kelleher (C De Buitlear, 73), T Farrell, T Daly (D Horwitz, 71), M Healy; J Carty, C Blade (A Lloyd, 65); P McCabe (M Burke, 59), D Heffernan - captain (T McCartney, 54), D Robertson Mc-Coy (F Bealham, 40); G Thornbury, Q Roux (U Dillane, 57); P Boyle, C Fainga’a, E Masterson (C Gallagher, 65).
MUNSTER: A Conway; K Earls, C Farrell, D Goggin (S Arnold, 73), A Wootton (T Bleyendaal, 60); J Carbery, A Mathewson (C Murray, 50); J Loughman (D Kilcoyne, 61), N Scannell (K O’Byrne, 67) , J Ryan (S Archer, 40); J Kleyn, T Beirne; P O’Mahony - captain (B Holland, 64), T O’Donnell, A Botha (CJ Stander, 51).
Referee: Mike Adamson (Scotland)