In coming from 13 points behind to soundly defeat Munster 24-16 in the Guinness Pro 12 at the Galway Sportsground last evening, Pat Lam’s side demonstrated that they are now fit to challenge the very best.
They owned the ball for all but the last seven or eight minutes and were the superior force by a considerable margin as they ran in three tries of the highest quality and then defended their line in the final five minutes or so with total and absolute commitment to finish eight points ahead, a margin by which they were by no means flattered.
The manner in which they kept Munster at bay at the death and deprived them of a bonus point was something special.
Connacht paraded around the pitch at the end to the acclamation of 7,000 ecstatic supporters as they celebrated their first Pro12 victory over Munster since 2008 and their unbeaten eight-match run in the league this season. They are now fifth in the Pro12 and poised for a place the knockout stages.
Then there was the fortitude of their fans in making light of the conditions and cheering on the home side in a manner that delighted Pat Lam as it confirmed for him that his team has captured the hearts and minds of western supporters.
On such occasions, there are always individual heroes and the game demonstrated again that in man of the match Robbie Henshaw, Connacht and Ireland have a centre to fill the boots of Brian O’Driscoll. “Thank God he’s Irish,” mused Munster coach Anthony Foley. Henshaw’s speed and strength combined to make it a thoroughly miserable evening for the Munster midfield.
It was as a team though that Connacht flourished most of all, and on the night, they proved far too much for a Munster side that could never summon the same hunger and desire.
The visitors had looked to be coasting early on. Keatley banged over a 40-metre penalty after seven minutes and almost immediately Peter O’Mahony finished off a fierce rolling maul with a try that Keatley converted from near touch. Another Keatley penalty followed and within 15 minutes, Munster were 13 points clear.
However, by this time, Connacht were claiming more than 50% of the possession and using it wisely. So it came as little surprise when they struck for a superbly worked try on the half hour. They won clean lineout possession on the Munster 10-metre line, out-half Craig Ronaldson placed a perfect chip in the path of Henshaw who gathered on the full and easily drew in Simon Zebo before sending Marmion between the posts for a try. Craig Ronaldson converted and suddenly, wind or no wind, there was only one team in the game. It was harsh justice on the home side when Keatley made it 16-7 shortly before the interval after Aki was penalised for a high tackle on Zebo.
Within two minutes of the restart, Connacht opened up the Munster defence once again, Henshaw bursting through a couple of weak tackles before linking up with Aki who set up the ruck from which Marmion sent Ronaldson over. Ronaldson was injured in scoring and Darragh Leader stepped up to add the points.
Connacht were ahead on 55 minutes thanks to a penalty by replacement out-half Miah Nikora and rubbed in their supremacy still further when Marmion again deceived the Munster fringe defence and although stopped inches short, Ally Muldowney was able to force his way over, for Leader to convert and move Connacht eight points ahead.
After that, they proved that they could defend magnificently as well as attack.
Scorers for Connacht: Tries: Marmion, Ronaldson, Muldowney. Cons: Ronaldson, D. Leader 2. Pens: Nikora. Scorers for Munster: Tries: P. O’Mahony. Cons: Keatley. Pens: Keatley 3.
CONNACHT: M Muliaina; D Leader, R Henshaw, B Aki, D Poolman; C Ronaldson, K Marmion; D Buckley, T McCartney, R Ah You, Q Roux, A Muldowney, J Muldoon capt, W Faloon, E McKeon.
Replacements: D Heffernan for McCartney 16-21 temporary; F Bealham for Ah You 51; G Naopau for McKeon 55; D McSharry for Nikora 60; D Heffernan for Faloon 69.
MUNSTER: S Zebo; A Conway, P Howard, JJ Hanrahan, R O’Mahony; I Keatley, D Williams; J Ryan, D Casey, BJ Botha, B Holland, P O’Connell, P O’Mahony capt, T O’Donnell, CJ Stander. Replacements: K O’Byrne for Casey half -time; M Nikora for Ronaldson 42; I Dineen for Conway 61; P Butler for Stander 69; D O’Callaghan for Holland 69; S Archer for Botha and E Guinazu for Ryan 73;
Referee: David Wilkinson (IRFU).