It was no surprise that it took a man who always shines in the limelight just four minutes to race through for the opening score, but whatever about Ireland’s loss, the gap that will be left in the Munster back three next season with Simon Zebo’s departure was illustrated last night.
Aside from racing through to score his 56th Munster try in 125 appearances, Zebo was comfortable under all the bombs thrown his way by Connacht and was pinpoint in most, but not all, touch-finders.
But the manner in which he was on Rory Scannell’s shoulder — a neat out-the-back pass from another player with a point to prove — to give Munster the perfect start was just all so typical of Zebo.
If Zebo was the loser this week, then Bundee Aki was undoubtedly the winner although, obviously, not at the expense of the Munsterman. But Aki didn’t waste much time in making a mark either, ripping the ball out of the attacking CJ Stander in the first minute and then blasting anyone who came his way.
But the sublime handling skills which Schmidt hopes he will produce for Ireland were also in evidence, none more so than when putting the impressive Jarrad Butler through to set Tiernan O’Halloran up for a Connacht try after 22 minutes.
The Connacht hooker also qualified for Ireland recently and was another hoping for a big performance after not being selected by Joe Schmidt but the Connacht lineout was in trouble throughout and threw away several good opportunities by not getting the set-piece in order.
The lineout deficiency undid a lot of the good work by a good Connacht scrum where McCartney was to the fore. But the Kiwi will be far from happy with that lineout display.
No more than Zebo, O’Halloran had plenty to prove after being left out of the Irish squad and like his counterpart the No.15 shirt presented the opportunity to stand out. O’Halloran took full advantage and his display only added to the surprise of his exclusion.
Rock solid under the high ball, O’Halloran showed pace and good positioning going forward and was a constant threat to the Munster rearguard. Good use of the boot only added to the mystery of his international exclusion but don’t be surprised by a call-up in the coming weeks if an opportunity arises.
With Ian Keatley pushing on from consistent good displays for Munster to secure an Irish call-up, the Kerry man needs to make the most of any opportunities that come his way. He nailed a good penalty from the right shortly after coming on to edge Munster back in front.
But then after Conway’s dismissal he got caught badly when Tom Farrell broke for the decisive score of the night — Jack O’Donoghue was also guilty — as the Connacht centre raced through to score under the posts.
To add insult to injury, Farrell forced Hanrahan into a knock-on in the final play of the night as Munster came looking for a late winner.
A horrible way for him to end a week where he was deservedly called into the Irish squad for the autumn tests. There were ominous signs pre-match in the warm-up when a touch-finder from him sent a folder flying out of the hands of a female Connacht official — he immediately raced over and apologised — but he knew he was in trouble when Nigel Owens went to television match official Brian MacNiece.
It was clear there was no intent — Peter O’Mahony in front of him didn’t help either — but once contact was made with Jack Carty’s head there was only going to be one outcome and Conway now has an anxious wait to see what punishment may lie ahead.