So near, yet so far again for Connacht

Connacht 12 Munster 16
HEARTBREAK for Connacht and an early Christmas present for Munster at a wet and windy Sportsground on Saturday evening.

The outcome of the keenly contested RaboDirect Pro12 encounter was decided by two massive decisions involving referee Dudley Phillips and television match official Marshall Gilgore. The former awarded a penalty try after a single scrummage infringement close to the Connacht line in the 36th minute, the latter decreed that George Naoupu had failed to touch down for what would have proven a decisive try in the 70th minute.

Throw in the failure of winger Fetu’u Vainikolo to capitalise on a gilt-edged try-scoring opportunity on the half hour and you readily understood why Elwood once again believed the rugby gods were lining up against him.

“Maybe I’ll get myself in trouble but I didn’t think there was anything in it, the scrum was going sideways if anything and I felt it was harsh,” said Elwood of the penalty try decision.

“It wasn’t a penalty try. I spoke to Rob Penney and he was a little amazed where it came from but obviously he was happy because he got seven points. Things like that turn derby games.”

Penney wasn’t for arguing the merits of the penalty try decision one way or the other. While fulsome in his praise for Connacht’s effort, he understandably preferred to place greater emphasis on the quality of his own side’s performance in surroundings and conditions that invariably militate against the prospects of visiting sides.

“We talked at the start of the week about how this could be a banana skin for us, coming here in difficult circumstances, with a number of changes in the team,” he commented. “I was pleased with the detail and effort that went into the preparation for this game because Connacht deserve that respect. Although the performance didn’t reflect the amount of work that went in this week, the four points is just reward for their effort. A lot of the messages are coming from within the group which is really encouraging. Ian Keatley and Billy Holland in particular drove things on this week. The message that they were able to get across and the learning internally is fantastic. And it’s going to be sustainable long-term. It’s pleasing to see that development. The young guys come in and they work hard, they listen and get in behind those drivers. We’re starting to see the benefits of that.”

Penney was loud in his praise for the younger and less established members who impressed in appalling weather conditions. And yet it was the proudest veteran of all, Peter Stringer, who shone like a beacon as he gave a masterclass in scrum-half play. His passing and kicking were outstanding and it was a magnificent piece of covering that prevented Naoupu scoring a match-winning try.

“Strings was right up there for the man-of-the-match award,” Penney acknowledged. “It was the Strings of old. He was a determined character all week, given that he hasn’t had a lot of access to the team lately. He was superb and marshalled the guys well. It was really fitting that he was in the final act there with George Naoupu.”

Stringer’s half-back partner Ian Keatley turned in a splendid all-round performance and he also pulled off a try-saving tackle to deny Vainikolo. Penney continued: “Ian did a great job, not only to get to him but also to effect a fantastic tackle that took him into touch without allowing him to dot the ball down.”

As it was only by a matter of inches that Connacht were foiled of two tries and had that questionable penalty try awarded against them, Elwood’s frustration at having to settle for a bonus point was perfectly understandable.

“We are creating chances but at this level you have got to be able to take them because that’s what wins you ball games. It is encouraging but Rob is going home with four points and I have nothing bar a losing bonus point. That’s the heartbreaking thing really.”

Scorers for Munster: Penalty try, Ian Keatley 3 pens, 1 con.

Scorers for Connacht: Dan Parks 3 pens, 1 drop goal.

MUNSTER: D Hurley; J Murphy, C Laulala, J Downey, L O’Dea; I Keatley, P Stringer; D Kilcoyne, M Sherry, S Archer; D O’Callaghan, B Holland; P Butler, T O’Donnell, J Coughlan (c).

Replacements: S Dougall for Coughlan 67; W du Preez for Kilcoyne 69; B J Botha for Archer 72; D Barnes for Downey 74; J J Hanrahan for O’Dea 75.

CONNACHT: R Henshaw; T O’Halloran, D Poolman, D McSharry, F Vainikolo; D Parks, K Marmion; B Wilkinson, J Harris-Wright, N White (c), G Naoupu, M McCarthy, A Browne, J O’Connor, E McKeon. Replacements: M Jarvis for O’Halloran 25; D Buckley for Wilkinson 47; M Swift for Browne 52; E Reynecke for Harris-Wright 66; P O’Donohoe for Mannion 67; E Griffin for Vainikolo 67; E Grace for O’Connor 72.

Referee: D Phillips (IRFU).


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