Certainly the best performance of the year so far, Johann van Graan had declared with tongue firmly in-cheek as Munster got 2019 up-and-running in strong shape at the Sportsground.
It was an amusing reflection but it undersold the significance of both performance and result as the men in red chalked off the first of a challenging first few weeks of the new year with maximum points.
A strong Connacht side playing with ambition renewed under the astute stewardship of Andy Friend had represented a tough assignment to sign off on the festive season of inter-provincial Guinness PRO14 derbies and springboard into the crucial final rounds of European pool competition. And the benefits of leaving Galway on Saturday night with a bonus-point victory, coming on the back of a home win over Leinster, should mark a pivotal moment in the campaign and perhaps van Graan’s tenure after 13 months in his first job as a head coach. Because this was a win achieved with not just spirit and resilience of character, but the variety of a gameplan that has slowly taken root over the first four months of the season.
It should certainly make the six-day turnaround to this Friday night’s must-win Heineken Champions Cup trip to Gloucester a lot easier to manage, despite the knocks, bumps and bruises reported by the head coach in the immediate aftermath of this four-try to three win.
A fortnight earlier, Munster seemed to be staring down the barrels of a loaded gun, their season on the brink after a narrow European pool loss at Castres and pre-Christmas defeat to Ulster in Belfast with two more derbies to come, both of which had been lost the previous season.
Two weeks later and the double winners of last season have been beaten, Munster have their first away win on Irish soil in seven games dating back to New Year’s Eve, 2016 and have added the bonus of going top of PRO14 Conference A, their reversal of fortune coinciding with a downturn in previous leaders, Glasgow’s.
Such is the delicate nature of form, confidence and things simply clicking into place at the right time and just a fourth away win of the season in nine attempts could not have come at a better time given the tricky challenge awaiting Munster at Kingsholm on Friday night.
Van Graan insisted no extra emphasis had been placed on getting things right away from home as opposed to on home turf, though he did admit to his players creating different headaches on their travels outside their Limerick and Cork comfort zones.
“No. We as a squad haven’t focused on the home or away that much. We set our standards and there are certain things we’ve been doing at home that we’re very happy with and certain things away from home that we weren’t.
“I thought our maul went really well tonight and that bought us penalties and Joey (Carbery) kicked it to touch, it buys you field-position and I thought we were pretty clinical in the 22 and both nines and 10s managed the game pretty well down there.
“We didn’t overplay. Once their defence was up we turned them and put pressure on their line-out, they kicked it out and we went again. So, the game-management was pretty good tonight.”
Indeed, it was, man of the match, Joey Carbery putting in his most assured performance since joining from Leinster last summer, adding a confident, tactical kicking game to his perfect return of four conversions and a penalty from the tee before moving to full-back after an hour to accommodate the arrival of fellow fly-half Tyler Bleyendaal. Carbery then made the most of the extra space to carve out the bonus-point try with some sparkling footwork to step wing Matt Healy and beat the last man following a long pass from the replacement 10.
Connacht had taken the lead at the start of both halves, with the excellent Tom Farrell stripping Arno Botha all too easily near halfway and streaking home after 10 minutes and then breaking through in midfield from the second-half restart to feed wing Cian Kelleher for an excellent second home try of the night, to the delight of a sell-out 8,129 crowd.
Munster rallied both times, Peter O’Mahony and Dan Goggin striking in the opening period to give the visitors a 14-10 half-time lead and then Goggin again in the 47th minute to nudge his side back in front at 19-17. Carbery’s unanswered 12 points from the conversion, a 57th-minute penalty and then the added extras to his own 64th-minute try put Munster in the clear and they did enough during the endgame to see off a Connacht rally that saw the impressive Jack Carty score and then convert his own try eight minutes from time.
Despite a strong challenge from Connacht, head coach Friend could not disagree with his opposite number as his side missed the chance to leapfrog Munster into second place in the conference table.
“The way they controlled territory there tonight was pretty good,” the Australian said. “Our second half we were much better at that. But virtually every ball (of Munster’s) that hit boot was clinical. We are working on that at the moment. Second half we were much, much better. But the way they controlled that territory was outstanding.”
With a hard-fought game delicately balanced heading into the final third, Munster fly-half Joey Carbery took the game by the scruff of the neck with 12 unanswered points in a 16-minute spell via two conversions, a penalty and a super try. It gave the visitors the cushion at 31-17 they would need to secure this important derby victory over their conference rivals.
So Munster start 2019 on top of PRO14 Conference A and with back-to-back victories over Leinster and Connacht. Equally pleasing for Johann van Graan will be the performance his team put together to gain a valuable away win at a sold-out and raucous Sportsground, perfect timing ahead of a six-day turnaround and a must-win European trip to Gloucester on Friday night.
Joey Carbery had an excellent night at fly-half with good game management under close scrutiny from Connacht and a perfect goal-kicking performance of four conversions and a penalty.
He also finished the night with a lovely try from full-back, finally getting the space in which he can be so deadly with rapid footwork to turn defenders inside out. Special mention also for Connacht outside centre Tom Farrell, who put his hand up once again for Ireland consideration with a try-scoring performance.
Mike Adamson was booed off the field at half-time after incurring the wrath of the Clan Terrace for not punishing Peter O’Mahony after the Munster skipper collided with Jack Carty after the fly-half had kicked ahead. The Scottish ref further enraged the home support when he ignored their calls for the TMO to be consulted after Munster’s third try which had been the result of a long pass from Alby Mathewson which the Connacht fans believed was forward. That said, Adamson did disallow another Munster score via TMO Simon McDowell when the officials deemed John Ryan had not properly grounded the ball.
Connacht 9 Munster 7 + 2 free kicks
Connacht lost loosehead prop Denis Buckley to a stomach bug ahead of kick-off, forcing a late change, while Munster’s issues came from a physical interprovincial encounter with Peter O’Mahony, Keith Earls, Andrew Conway, Alex Wootton, Chris Farrell, and Dan Goggin all reported to have picked up knocks, the severity of which will be assessed today. John Ryan was removed for a Head Injury Assessment just before half-time and did not return to the field for the second half.
After three tough PRO14 derbies, it’s back to Europe for the provinces with Challenge Cup contenders Connacht preparing for the visit of English Premiership Sale Sharks to Galway on Saturday, while on Friday Munster travel to Gloucester searching for the away win to put their Heineken Champions Cup pool campaign back on track after a round-four loss at Castres.
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 McCoy (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).