Munster 42 Connacht 20
Six tries at home, bonus-point revenge over the next-door neighbours and a step closer to the Guinness Pro12 play-offs.
It is not too bad a haul for Munster as the regular season run-in comes into view, the Six Nations heroes become available again and short-term injuries begin to clear.
Yet as the league takes another two-week break for matters more absorbing, this latest weekend off for head coach Anthony Foley and his coaches carries with it some added feeling.
No fixture on the first weekend in April can only mean one thing and the hurt of having to sit idly by as Europe’s elite contest the Champions Cup quarter-finals may well far outweigh the satisfaction within the Munster set-up that Saturday’s victory over Connacht generated.
Munster secured another footing in the Pro12 top four and maintained their push for a home semi-final, level on points with second-placed Ulster and trailing the northerners by just two in the points differential with four games to go, one of which is a trip to Ravenhill in the penultimate round.
Munster will not reappear until April 11 when they visit Edinburgh but it is all set up for what should be an exciting run-in, with all four provinces involved in the shake-up. Leinster are knocking on the door in fifth place and Connacht, beaten but unbowed, hope to secure onto sixth to ensure qualification for next season’s Champions Cup.
All very enthralling but the absence of European rugby hangs heavy over Thomond Park and Foley readily referenced it in his post-match press conference.
Offered the chance to wax lyrical on the good position outlined earlier Foley replied: “We’d love to be playing next week but we haven’t earned the right to play next week and we’re not, so we have to deal with that..
“I will watch it (the Champions Cup). It’s a great weekend for rugby, just not being involved in it is hard. It’s a great competition and as you can see everybody in our league is fighting to get into the best positions possible so that they can qualify for Europe next year, because nobody wants to miss out on the competition.”
That is precisely the thought occupying the mind of Foley’s Connacht counterpart Pat Lam, who saw his injury-hit side make a game of it in Limerick for an hour, trailing only 14-6 at 60 minutes only to succumb to Munster power, spearheaded by man of the match CJ Stander, and pace in the closing quarter, a 20-minute tryfest won 4-2 by the home side with backs Simon Zebo, Andrew Smith, Denis Hurley and the excellent Keith Earls adding to earlier scores from forwards Billy Holland and Duncan Casey.
“Not who we are,” Lam said of those final passages, which also saw subs Miah Nikora and Shane O’Leary dot down.
“It is not a reflection of who we are and the work that we have done but also the work are doing in the previous 55 minutes. These boys do work hard and some of the tries were good bounces of the ball, a bit of fortune and a lot of good Munster play. So we just have to, as I said to the boys let’s not get too down on that.”
It’s in our control still and we haven’t dropped out of it for the whole season. Certainly, we have got four games to try and stay in there. It is going to be a close finish right through and wewill know the next game.”
Connacht also have a European date to keep them busy in the interim, a Challenge Cup quarter-final date this weekend with Goucester at Kingsholm, for which Munster provided the ideal warm-up.
“They are big boys, physical, full of international players and big units,” Lam said of Gloucester. “We have seen that already as we’ve done our preparation. They have a direct team and we just have to hold out longer defensively than we did today.
“We saw that in Test match rugby last week with both teams going for it. We don’t control the ball and someone falls off a tackle and that sort of thing can happen. The balance goes one way instead of the other way and then that happens before you know it. You just see the momentum build up, I think that just happens and we just park that, learn from it and move on.”
MUNSTER: F Jones; K Earls, A Smith, D Hurley – captain, S Zebo (R O’Mahony, 74); I Keatley (JJ Hanrahan, 70), D Williams (N Cronin, 74); J Ryan (D Kilcoyne, 59), E Guinazu (D Casey, 52), S Archer (BJ Botha, 52); Donncha O’Callaghan (J O’Donoghue, 64), B Holland; Dave O’Callaghan, T O’Donnell, CJ Stander (P Butler, 74).
CONNACHT: T O’Halloran; D Leader, D Poolman, C Finn (S O’Leary, 66), M Healy; J Carty (M Nikora, 64), K Marmion (J Cooney, 58); D Buckley (F Bealham, 65), T McCartney, R Ah You (R Loughney, 65); M Kearney (Q Roux, 58), A Muldowney; J Muldoon – captain, E Masterson, G Naoupu (E McKeon, 52; Naupou 54; S Delahunt 75).
Referee: Leighton Hodges (WRU)
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