Munster saw off interprovincial rivals Connacht in Limerick but still had to settle for second place in Guinness PRO14 Conference A as Glasgow Warriors beat Edinburgh to hold onto top spot and with it a home play-off semi-final tonight.
Munster must now return to Thomond Park next Saturday afternoon for a home quarter-final against Conference B third-placed team Benetton but will do so with momentum restored thanks to an emphatic victory that helped to lift the mood following the previous weekend’s humbling European semi-final defeat by Saracens in Coventry.
On a chilly evening in Limerick, Munster even overcame the pre-game loss of star scrum-half Conor Murray, who left the field during the warm-up and did not return for the kick-off as Neil Cronin started at number nine in his stead.
Three tries from man of the match Tadhg Beirne, Mike Haley and JJ Hanrahan saw off a game Connacht effort, with Finlay Bealham and Eoin McKeon earning their two tries.
With Connacht already locked into third place in Conference A and knowing they would be facing Ulster in Belfast next weekend for a place in the semi-finals, Munster started the game 12 points ahead of their rivals in second and assured of a home quarter-final. Yet there was a sniff for van Graan’s side of overhauling leaders Glasgow Warriors, protecting a three-point lead in the league as they hosted Edinburgh in Scotstoun with the same kick-off time.
Beat Connacht, preferably with a bonus point, and hope Edinburgh score an away win to wipe out the Warriors’ lead and take next weekend off with a home semi-final in the bag.
Easier said than done, never mind events in Scotland. This was an interprovincial derby and though Munster had named a stronger team than their neighbours, this was not a simple box-ticking exercise.
Particularly not when Murray left the pre-game warm-up holding his neck, a worrying development given his neck had prevented him from starting the season until late November.
Those fears were quickly realised when Cronin was announced as the late change for Murray in the Munster number nine jersey, Ireland Under-20 star Craig Casey moving onto the bench and catapulted into position for a shock senior debut a week after his 20th birthday.
As assured as Cronin appeared, Munster did not start fluently as Connacht enjoyed most of the early possession although debutant fly-half Conor Dean missed a 13th-minute penalty in swirling wind and instead Tyler Bleyendaal kicked the home side 3-0 ahead after the visitors strayed offside.
Connacht, though, possessed the greater attacking threat in the opening exchanges and they got their reward on 24 minutes when flanker Eoin McKeon powered to the line and prop Finlay Bealham, back from a nasty hand injury suffered in the Challenge Cup quarter-final loss at Sale Sharks on March 29, struck off the back of the ensuing ruck, twisting his body in contact to get the ball over the last defender and down for a try, Dean adding the conversion.
Munster had a gilt-edged opportunity to hit back immediately when Tiernan O’Halloran’s pass to Robin Copeland was intercepted by Andrew Conway but the Munster wing was guilty of complacency as he jogged behind the posts to touch down, former team-mate and opposing wing Stephen Fitzgerald chasing his man down and forcing the spill.
It was an awful error of judgement from Conway, on a par with Freddie Burns’ botched try for Bath against Toulouse in the Champions Cup last October. That would cost Burns’ side the game but Conway’s blushes were saved as Tadhg Beirne and Mike Haley scored in quick succession to move Munster in front.
Second-row Beirne took a flat pass from Cronin on the 22 and showed brilliant footwork to step wing Niyi Adeolokun and then shrug off the tackle of full-back O’Halloran to score under the posts on 31 minutes before Conway made a break down the right, releasing captain and Munster player of the year Peter O’Mahony, who sucked in the Connacht defender and timed his pass back inside for Mike Haley to run onto and score from 20 metres out, the full-back learning from Conway’s earlier mistake and touching down with emphatic dive.
Bleyendaal notched both conversions and Munster caught a further break when they conceded a scrum penalty on the stroke of half-time but saw Dean’s penalty drift wide of the uprights to leave van Graan’s side with a 17-7 half-time lead.
Bleyendaal made it 20-7 on 56 minutes as Bundee Aki was made to pay for a deliberate knock-on, only for Connacht to get a penalty at the other end three minutes later. The westerners, chasing the game, kicked for the corner in search of a try but not before O’Mahony and McKeon had a coming together, both escaping with a warning.
It had been a typically feisty first-half with Aki, in particular, getting in the faces of the home side and the second half saw Munster’s captain quickly embroiled in another dust-up after Connacht’s attack from the penalty lineout maul ended in a penalty going against them. Again, referee Frank Murphy warned both captains and play continued.
If the argy-bargy was called a draw, the scrum was more decisive and in Connacht’s favour. Andy Friend’s pack had the measure of the home forwards throughout and even a change of front rows had not changed the dynamic. When Munster conceded a third scrum penalty in quick succession in front of their posts, referee Murphy had no option but to reach for a card, replacement loosehead Jeremy Loughman the guilty part on the final occasion.
Yet though Connacht took advantage of their numerical superiority, McKeon grabbing a try, converted by Dean to close the gap to 20-14, Munster regrouped and, with impetus from a five-man substitution on 67 minutes, the 14 men found a way to stretch the visiting defence, replacement fly-half JJ Hanrahan scoring under the posts and converting his own try to see Munster home with a victory.
MUNSTER: M Haley; A Conway, C Farrell (S Arnold, 67), D Goggin (C Farrell 72 - HIA), C Nash; T Bleyendaal (JJ Hanrahan, 67) , N Cronin (C Casey, 76); D Kilcoyne (J Loughman, 52), N Scannell (R Marshall, 67), S Archer (J Ryan, 52); J Kleyn (B Holland, 67), T Beirne; P O’Mahony - captain, C Cloete (A Botha, 67, Kilcoyne, 69-79), CJ Stander.
Yellow card: Loughman 68-78
CONNACHT: T O’Halloran (D Leader, 72); N Adeolokun, B Aki (E Griffin, 59), T Daly, S Fitzgerald; C Dean, K Marmion (C Blade, 63); M Burke (P McCabe, 49), T McCartney (S Delahunt, 44), F Bealham (C Carey, 49); J Maksymiw, J Cannon (E Masterson, 56); E McKeon, J Butler - captain (P Boyle, 63), R Copeland.
Referee: Frank Murphy (IRFU).