Far from perfect from Munster but there was more than enough about them – and Connacht – in this bruising interpro to make it a worthy means of marking the fifth anniversary of Anthony Foley’s passing.
Johann van Graan’s men lived up to the province’s most cherished traditions in refusing to be denied on a night when their unbeaten start to the season looked like coming to an end. The winning score came with just over 60 seconds to go.
For Connacht, this one will hurt. That’s only one win in their opening four URC ties now but they boxed clever for long periods here and put in a massive physical effort after the low that was their home defeat to Dragons at home last week.
The game was preceded by a minute’s applause for Foley who was shown in full flight on the stadium’s big screen, the image capturing him with the ubiquitous scrum cap and fingerless gloves as he cradled the ball.
Connacht captain Jack Carty had earlier presented a Connacht shirt bearing the Munsterman’s number and nickname to his counterpart Peter O’Mahony but it was the last gift Andy Friend’s side was prepared to impart.
Two Carty penalties had Connacht 6-0 to the good inside the first 10 minutes, both efforts coming from the visitor’s superior tactical kicking which played its part in frustrating a side they had overcome when last in these parts back in May.
They found a way over the try line twice in that opening half, Mack Hansen crossing over after 24 minutes and Cian Prendergast running half the length of the pitch half-a-dozen minutes later, but both were ruled out for infractions.
Correctly, on each occasion.
The first of the season’s interpros, this one lived up to the intense nature of the series with three bouts of handbags interspersing the action in the opening 40 but referee Chris Busby took plenty of time to lay down the law to the captains.
That dialogue and other factors meant it would never be a classic.
Both sides were guilty of a looseness in possession and at the contact area but Munster would have been especially annoyed at this facet of their play which, time and again, cost them any rhythm and prospect of putting points on the board.
Struggling with Connacht’s physicality at the breakdown, they compounded things with a misfiring lineout but they were handed a lifeline seven minutes from the break when Sam Arnold was shown a yellow card for a high tackle on Mike Haley.
It looked harsh but Munster weren’t about to argue.
Their first attack on the back of that decision was all too familiar, John Ryan the one this time to spill the ball as they attempted to build up steam, but they then struck from pretty much nowhere to claim an unlikely half-time lead.
It emanated from a kick return, the ball returned through the hands and down the Connacht left wing before a ruck formed and it was promptly redirected down the far channel via Rory Scannell’s crossfield kick.
Munster had four men over on that side but it took two fly kicks from Tadhg Beirne to get them into striking distance. Cloete, who was a busy man at a fiercely contested breakdown all night, touched down.
Carbery’s conversion left Munster 7-6 up at the break, Connacht’s frustration with this turn of events compounded by the fact that Beirne was clearly in an offside position when Scannell punted in his direction.
Whatever about that, Connacht will have known there was still a storm to come and it took a familiar form with Cloete twice held up early in the second half, once off the back of a maul and after that when Munster reverted to the pick and go approach.
All told, Munster’s only reward for this concerted blitz was a Joey Carbery penalty with half an hour still to go and Connacht were in no mood to just sit back and absorb this sort of punishment for the rest of the evening.
Within four minutes they were in the other 22, moving the ball from side to side and asking all sorts of questions, which Munster answered by conceding a penalty and allowing Paul Boyle scoot over for a try from a simple tap and go.
Carty’s conversion scraped the wrong side of the post and that allowed Carbery restore the lead with a penalty shortly afterwards. At 13-11 to Munster, this one could have gone either way but it was at this very point that some of the air came out of the game.
That ended with just over ten minutes to go when Carty caught the home side with a sucker punch, charging down a Carbery kick on the Munster 22 and running in over the try line after collecting the loose ball. Another terrible score to concede.
The straightforward conversion left Connacht holding an 18-13 lead but the story had one last twist. You knew how Munster would respond to that but knowing that and stopping it were two very different propositions.
Connacht withstood the storm as best they could, their boots scuffing the chalk along their own try line for what seemed an age until Munster launched one pick and go too many and Diarmuid Barron launched himself over.
That left Carbery with the kick to win it. He nailed it.
M Haley; A Conway, K Earls, R Scannell, S Zebo; J Carbery, C Casey; D Kilcoyne, N Scannell, J Ryan; J Kleyn, T Beirne; P O’Mahony, C Cloete, G Coombes.
D Barron for N Scannell, J Loughman for Kilcoyne and S Archer for Ryan (all 55); D Goggin for R Scannell (HIA, 57); F Wycherley for Kleyn (61); J O’Donoghue for Cloete (68).
T O’Halloran; J Porch, S Arnold, B Aki, M Hansen; J Carty, C Blade; M Burke, D Heffernan, F Bealham; N Murray, U Dillane; C Prendergast, C Oliver, P Boyle.
J Butler for Prendergast (47); S Delahunt for Heffernan and A Papali’i for Boyle (both 60); K Marmion for Blade (61); J Aungier for Bealham (64); E Masterson for Dillane and G McGrath for Burke (both 74).
C Busby (IRFU).