Munster sealed top spot in Guinness PRO14 Conference B and a first final under Johann van Graan with this victory but they were forced to do it the hard way by Connacht.
It was a scrappy, error-strewn performance from van Graan’s men but a 68th-minute penalty from Joey Carbery sealed the victory that means Munster cannot be caught in first place with two regular-season games still to play.
The two provinces had gone toe-to-toe throughout, each losing a player to the sin-bin in the second-half and trading tries, Connacht taking an early lead through Matt Healy, cancelled out by James Cronin, then taking the lead through Mike Haley, only to see the westerners level it up once more through Paul Boyle before Carbery sealed it in his second appearance back from long-term injury.
In the end, Munster summoned the wherewithal to get the job done, despite a faltering lineout and the best efforts of the phenomenal Connacht lock Gavin Thornbury. Yet they had got off to a sloppy start, expertly exploited by a hungry Connacht side seeking a fourth win in a row and first victory over Munster in seven starts. The home side compounded error upon error in a nervy start that belied their nine-point advantage over their neighbours in the conference table. A lineout lost inside the Connacht half led to a touch-finding grubber from Tom Daly and from the resulting home throw, Craig Casey’s box kick was charged down leading to a Connacht scrum on five metres.
When the ball came out, Munster were not connected in defence and when Andrew Conway shot out of the line, Jack Carty sent out a super long pass for Matt Healy, finding the wing in acres of space to score the opening try on four minutes.
Carty’s conversion made it 7-0 to the visitors and it could have been more if they had taken their opportunities aided by a less than fluent Munster outfit. The home side gradually grew into the half and started to get into their rhythm, building possession and territory before Jack O’Donoghue stole a Connacht lineout inside the 22 and Munster eked out a penalty that Ben Healy sent to the corner. Munster were held up from the resulting five-metre lineout but the scrum reaped rewards, Chris Farrell with a big carry off the set-piece, then a Casey snipe down the blindside before James Cronin picked and crashed over, Healy’s conversion levelling the scores at 7-7 after 22 minutes.
Healy had the chance to level the scores once again after Carty had edged Connacht in front with a 27th-minute penalty as Munster, despite slipping back into some scrappy play, won a penalty just over halfway. The academy fly-half, who secure his first senior contract, a one-year deal for next season on Friday, missed from long-range to end the half but he had no trouble three minutes after the interval from in front of the posts as Munster made a much brighter start to the second half.
It should have got brighter again when Connacht lost Bundee Aki to the sin bin after TMO Joy Neville drew referee Chris Busby’s attention to a deliberate knock-on but Munster fluffed their lines, failing to take advantage as their attacking plays faltered and Johann van Graan readied his reinforcements to make amends.
Aki had returned by the time Healy had another shot at goal from long range but that was missed on 56 minutes before Munster replaced him with Joey Carbery and also sent on Damina de Allende, Jean Kleyn and Kevin O’Byrne in a bid to change the course of this contest.
The switch-up lit a fire under Munster and Mike Haley in particular, his midfield take of a high ball followed by a kick ahead which he gathered expertly 10 metres ot to score. Carbery sent over the conversion and Munster were somehow 17-10 in front. But not for long, Chris Cloete taking one for the team as he was binned while Munster scrambled to hold out a sweeping Connacht attack.
The green wave finished the job off the resulting scrum, De Allende wrong-footed at the side of a ruck as Paul Boyle launched himself towards the line, the Munster centre blocking fellow replacement John Ryan’s attempts to stop the No.8 as he drove over the line. Carty levelled the game at 17-all with his conversion, only for Carbery to edge Munster back in front with a penalty with 12 minutes to go.
If it had not felt like a semi-final before it certainly did now as the clocked ticked towards 80 with Munster desperate to hang for a place in the final amd Connacht equally eager to force the chase into another week. The roar that erupted from the Munster bench when a Connacht attack was thwarted on their 10-metre line by the reinstated Cloete three minutes from time told you all you needed in that respect. From the penalty kick to right touch, Munster’s maul got on a roll and earned another vital penalty, Carbery taking his time to kick to the corner as the game entered the final minute. This time the lineout stuck and another Munster penalty followed as Connacht’s hopes took a further dive. Carbery wasted little time with the next kick, clogging the penalty out of touch to seal victory. There have been better performances this season for sure but none sweeter than this one.
M Haley; A Conway, C Farrell, R Scannell (D de Allende, 56), S Daly; B Healy (J Carbery, 56), C Casey; J Cronin (J Loughman, 68), N Scannell (K O’Byrne, 56), S Archer (J Ryan, 60); F Wycherley (J Kleyn, 56), B Holland - captain; J O’Donoghue (J O’Sullivan, 70), C Cloete, G Coombes.
T O’Halloran (A Wootton, 60); J Porch, T Daly, B Aki, M Healy; J Carty, C Blade (K Marmion, 68); D Buckley, D Heffernan (S Delahunt, 68), F Bealham (J Aungier, 60); U Dillane, G Thornbury; J Butler - captain, C Oliver, P Boyle (E Masterson, 60).
M Burke, N Murray, S O’Brien (academy).
Chris Busby (IRFU).