Munster 50 Connacht 17: It is clear who will be the happier of the two provincial bosses as their thoughts turn towards crucial games in the next fortnight.
Yet Munster director of rugby Rassie Erasmus struggled as much as Connacht head coach Pat Lam to find positives from this surprisingly passionless Guinness Pro12 derby.
Clearly, there were plus points for Munster to take out of a seven-try demolition of their neighbours with the majority of the province’s big guns either rested or kept in reserve. Nor did you need reminding just how meaningful was the second-half return of scrum-half Conor Murray from an eight-week injury absence as Erasmus bids for a successful play-off campaign in the weeks ahead.
Yet, with a home semi-final, which will bring Ospreys to Thomond Park on May 20, secured the previous week and the visiting opposition so woefully off the pace, there was little the South African could learn from this last round of the league season.
With Leinster losing at Ulster in the other interpro derby on Saturday, the bonus-point victory over the westerners lifted Munster into first place on the final Pro12 table. Yet Erasmus bemoaned the lack of intensity to truly test his much-changed side in the way his front liners were a fortnight ago in their Champions Cup semi-final defeat.
“You learn a lot against a team like Saracens because that’s a pressurised game and if you lose that specific game you are out of the mix. A league game like this, where you have already qualified, the pressure is off,” Erasmus said. “You don’t know what is going on in the other camp. The coach is leaving, it’s your last game. There are a lot of emotions. Sometimes that pushes you, sometimes if pulls you down a little bit.
“It’s difficult to read a lot into today’s game. I’m glad for the guys who started and who are not regular starters. But I think what Pat (Lam) did there with Connacht. This is one of the toughest competitions I have coached in. You never coach against a similar style in the Pro12. You play Welsh, Italian, Irish and then running rugby and then like Connacht, even more running rugby. For him to do what he did in the last three years at Connacht, it’s unbelievable.”
Lam’s final Pro12 game before leaving for Bristol this summer proved a sorry departure point from the competition in which his side came of age last May to win an unlikely yet fully deserved first Pro12 title. Second- season syndrome has visited Connacht with a vengeance and Lam has seen increasingly diminished returns from a campaign rocked by injuries to key players and the news of his own departure. Yet there is hope for some redemption with Connacht’s eighth-placed finish nailed down going into the final two league games and ensuring they will contest a Champions Cup qualification play-off semi-final with either Gloucester or Northampton Saints in England.
After demoralising losses to at home to Scarlets and this heavy derby defeat, Lam scarcely got the response he was hoping for from players supposedly hungry for play-off selection but the Connacht boss is hoping the mindset changes considerably over the next two weeks.
“This is what the reality is. We have missed top four, we have missed top six. We have qualified for a playoff game, so we have put that there,” Lam said. “The number one goal was Champions Cup for next year. Then we changed everything, geared towards this game next week. But it does not take away the disappointment with of the way we played... it doesn’t change what’s going to happen on that day because that’s what matters.
“It’s important, it’s our minimum goal. For me, it would disappointing if we don’t make it through. It’s because we are good enough to make it through. It highlights that for whatever reason that we haven’t been good enough this year. We have to go up another level again.”
For Lam, the final Pro12 game might have been a microcosm for the entire campaign as Munster capitalised on error upon error from his players, passive in defence and sloppy in attack as Keith Earls, Jack O’Donoghue and Andrew Conway scored first-half tries, fly-half Ian Keatley perfect off the tee to give the home side a 24-0 half-time lead.
Nor did a James Cronin try two minutes after the restart, again converted by man of the match Keatley, bode well but at least Connacht got on the scoreboard in the third quarter, tries from Cian Kelleher and replacement Naulia Dawai, both converted by Craig Ronaldson.
Yet Munster’s superiority was never in doubt, Conway adding another in between before Francis Saili, one of seven internationals to come off the home bench, and Conor Oliver along with Keatley’s trusty boot brought up the half-century of points.
It left Lam stressing the positives of his four years in charge rather than this final season of disappointment.
Winning the league, clearly, “was a massive achievement,” he said. “But the biggest thing about this year, and the four years, is we have put things in place. We have set an expectation and a standard that we can play at. That’s why we are disappointed when these things happen.
“I put my best 15 at the start of the year, I put it on paper, not once in nearly 30 games that team’s played. That’s the reality of professional rugby.
“We have got to make sure we can keep bringing the depth through. But I have no doubt, I can see the age profile of the team, they will kick on and the new management next year will pick that up and carry that through. ”
A Conway, A Wootton (T Bleyendaal, 47), J Taute (F Saili, 58), D Goggin (J Taute, 69), K Earls; I Keatley, A Lloyd (C Murray, 53); J Cronin (D Kilcoyne, 58), R Marshall (N Scannell, 58), S Archer (J Ryan, 58); D O’Shea (P O’Mahony, 58), B Holland, capt; J Deysel (T O’Donnell, 64), C Oliver, J O’Donoghue.
T O’Halloran (D Leader, 63); C Kelleher, T Farrell, C Ronaldson, D Poolman; J Carty (M Boshoff, 66; Carty 69), K Marmion (J Cooney, 60); D Buckley (JP Cooney, 59), S Delahunt (D Heffernan, 63), C Carey (F Bealham, 44; Carey 66-69); Q Roux (N Dawai, 53), A Browne; E McKeon, J Connolly (S O’Brien, 58), J Muldoon, capt.
David Wilkinson (IRFU).
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