Munster’s failure to score when Bundee Aki was in the bin from the 45th minute should be a cause for concern for Johann van Graan and his coaching team. The teams were deadlocked at 10-10 and all the other stats around possession and territory had them level.
Aki’s yellow for a deliberate knock-on, when he tried to one-hand intercept Mike Haley’s pass to Craig Casey, presented Munster with the opening they should have exploited and taken hold of the game, but they lacked the execution and the ambition to do it.
Craig Casey’s aimless kick into the arms of full-back Tiernan O’Halloran, allowing Connacht to call the mark and eat a few moments off the clock, typified the lack of direction from Munster during that period which remained scoreless until Aki returned.
Munster’s lineout woes will be severely punished by stronger sides — losing seven of your own throws in a home match is not the stuff of a side poised to bid for silverware, even if there are internationals to return.
It’s hard to believe that it’s a decade since Munster last won silverware. Two appearances in the league final have been as close as they have been since. European bids were a distraction then; this time the Six Nations is a factor. But unlike the final losses in 2015 to Glasgow Warriors and Scarlets two years later, they have secured their place in the final with a couple of rounds left.
Now those remaining games at home to Scarlets and Benetton give Munster the chance to experiment and iron out issues, starting with the lineout and also find a killer touch which is going to be needed against Leinster or Ulster.
Mike Haley has now played 54 matches for Munster since he joined from Sale Sharks in the summer of 2018. He has started all of them at full-back and has played 80 minutes in 45 of them. That’s some consistency for a player whose only look-in internationally was a run against Italy in a World Cup warm-up in August 2019.
The Preston native showed in this one just why Johann van Graan rates him so highly. On a night when there was a lot of sloppiness and indecision, Haley was full of confidence, not just under the high ball but the manner in which he read what was happening around him.
His try, the decisive moment of the match, illustrated this, prepared to take the chance of the bounce of the ball and his hand-off on Paul Boyle before completing the last few metres to the line was class.
Van Graan is going to need that level of performance and discipline from his players if they are to end their silverware famine. Chris Cloete’s ability to win turnovers is offset by a mounting disciplinary issue, his yellow card was his fifth in 50 appearances and he was lucky referee Chris Busby didn’t go back for another look at a high tackle on Jack Carty just moments after he returned.
A red card at that stage could have meant a totally different outcome to this game.
Gavin Thornbury and Ultan Dillane made a mess of Munster’s lineout. They did their homework and executed it. They will be bitterly disappointed not to keep their league hopes alive.
But now they can concentrate on the European Challenge Cup, a competition they have played more games in than anyone else. They will find out their opponents on Tuesday and, with the likes of John Porch, Tom Daly, Caolin Blade, Denis Buckley, Dave Heffernan, and the locks playing superb rugby, this is a competition they can realistically have a crack at, having never got past the semi-final stage before.
Jack Carty, fired-up by his international exclusion, again showed the deft touches and if Bundee Aki can reduce the number of penalties his exuberance is coughing up, the style of rugby Andy Friend is advocating could see this season gain a new momentum in Europe.
With Champions Cup rugby already wrapped up, Connacht can now try out a few things in their remaining PRO14 games against Edinburgh and Scarlets and re-align for a serious tilt at winning European rugby for the first time in their history.