Connacht 9 Munster 16: It’s been a traumatic year for Munster and nothing they will do on the field is going to change that, but they signed off on 2016 in the best possible fashion on a foul night in Galway to remain top of the PRO12.
The fact their win, the only away victory achieved by any of the four provinces in the festive derby matches, was achieved with their Irish stars being rested adds another layer to the mountain of optimism and positivity building for Munster.
We will never know if this run of form would have been achieved in any event, or how much of it is being driven by the shock death of Anthony Foley in October.
However, it is clear the current success has not been achieved overnight and that a lot of it is down to groundwork done by Foley over the years.
It’s just over a year ago that Foley wrapped an arm around Ian Keatley after a small section of ‘fans’ in Thomond Park gave him grief.
Ironically, that treatment was meted out towards the Connacht out-half Jack Carty on Saturday evening by some of the home support after the Athlone man, cheered from the pitch after he snatched a Champions Cup win over Wasps earlier in the month, missed a few kicks.
Keatley rebuilt himself with Foley’s help, guidance and unwavering support a year ago and, on Saturday returned to the Sportsground and defied the wind and rain to orchestrate a deserved victory for Munster.
This is becoming a season where Munster can do little wrong and, in Rassie Erasmus, they seem to have found the perfect man to lead them, not least with the way the South African has handled the death of Foley with such dignity and thoughtfulness.
“Never say something that will bite you, but I enjoy it 100%,” said Erasmus when asked to assess his time so far in Munster.
“Even if the results don’t go our way, Leicester two weeks ago, I’m enjoying it. All my life I’ve been a coach in the south hemisphere and you get stale in that. You see one way of doing things. There are traditions and things — and I’m not saying this to suck up to anybody — which we haven’t experienced before and it’s happening week after week.” The only blot on a hard-earned win was an ankle injury to Tommy O’Donnell, which could sideline him for a few weeks, but Munster laid down an early marker and Keatley got them off the mark after three minutes, following good work by Keith Earls.
The Munster scrum was in trouble throughout and Carty punished them with a second penalty from the set-piece, but, with Billy Holland leading the way and Jack O’Donoghue, Jean Kleyn, and O’Donnell also effective, the Reds’ greater accuracy told.
Keatley gave Munster a 6-3 interval lead with a superb penalty into the wind and rain and, while he was off target from distance on the right wing shortly after the restart, he continued to dictate the flow.
Carty levelled for Connacht after 50 minutes through another scrum penalty, but then Keatley produced the moment of the match after a turnover a few metres from his own line, with his remarkable crosskick sending Andrew Conway away in a move which finished with hooker Rhys Marshall bulldozing over his first Munster try after a lineout take from Dave Foley.
A drop goal by Keatley pushed the lead to 10 and, while Carty ensured a tight finish with his third penalty, Munster penned Connacht back inside their own 22 in the closing moments.
There was confusion in the final play over whether Dave Kilcoyne should have been allowed back from the sinbin, while Jack O’Donoghue’s return (he had gone off to allow loosehead James Cronin come on for a scrum) also added to the mayhem at a time when Duncan Williams was heading the other way after picking up a yellow card.
“We were supposed to be playing 13 men, but the fourth official got it wrong and there were 15 on the field when we’re trying to go for it,” said Connacht coach Pat Lam. “The boys never gave up, but we lost to a very good Munster side.”
Scorers for Connacht:
Penalties: Carty (3)
Scorers for Munster:
Tries: Marshall; Conversions: Keatley; Pens: Keatley (3)
T O’Halloran; N Adeolokun, R Parata, P Robb, M Healy; J Carty, K Marmion; D Buckley, T McCartney, F Bealham; Q Roux, J Cannon; N Fox-Matamua, J Heenan, J Muldoon (c).
S O’Brien for Fox-Matamua (29), D Heffernan for McCartney (59), N Dawai for Roux (59), C Blade for Marmion (70), J Andress for Bealham (71), L Stevenson for Heenan (73), JP Cooney for Buckley (77).
A Conway; R O’Mahony, F Saili, D Goggin, K Earls; I Keatley, D Williams; J Cronin, R Marshall, S Archer; J Kleyn, D Foley; B Holland, T O’Donnell, J O’Donoghue.
S Archer for T Du Toit (49), D Kilcoyne for Cronin (53), C Oliver for Foley (70), R Copeland for O’Donnell (71), Cronin for O’Donoghue (73-80).
Dudley Philips (IRFU).
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved