Stunned Munster supporters watching their side forfeit a 13 point lead and eventually lose 24-16 to the hosts departed the Galway Sportsground on Thursday night wondering how Connacht were able to draft in such influential players as All Black legend Mils Muliaina and another Kiwi, Bundee Aki, while their own side have to settle for virtual unknowns from the Southern Hemisphere.
Not only that but Connacht coach Pat Lam is one of the most respected in the game and will be well-known to Munster fans for the role he played in the Heineken Cup final defeat to Northampton Saints in 2000.
Whereas Muliaina has represented New Zealand 100 times and Aki arrived in Galway having scored ten tries in the 2013/’14 campaign with the Chiefs in Super Rugby, Munster in comparison acquired Andrew Smith from the Brumbies in Australia and South African Pat Howard on a short term contract from Western Province. It certainly is a far cry from the days when the Reds attracted high profile names like Christian Cullen, Jim Williams and Jean De Villiers.
It could be argued that Muliaina, at 34, is past his imposing best, but the reality is that he hasn’t lost the class that made him one of the game’s finest full-backs.
Aki won’t be 25 until April and is contracted for three years during which time his centre partnership with Robbie Henshaw could do wonders for the side. And if the manner in which Muliaina and Aki joined in the post-match celebrations on Thursday is a reliable indicator, they could hardly be happier in their new roles.
Connacht now go on to meet struggling Edinburgh in the Pro 12 well ahead of a huge game a week later against Exeter in the European Challenge Cup. During that period, Munster have what should be a cushy enough away game against Zebre followed by the all-important Champions Cup visit to Saracens.
What the Red Army is now wondering is which Munster team will turn up for that encounter. Will it be the side that hammered Leinster on St Stephens Day or the one that succumbed so tamely against Connacht.
It’s a conundrum that is clearly focusing the mind of head coach Anthony Foley.
“The score Connacht got just before half-time was a killer and so we needed to come out in the second half and do something and in fairness to Connacht, they were pretty stingy and we didn’t get anything out of the game”, he said.
“We didn’t shift up the pitch, a couple of times we kicked out on the full, we didn’t turn them enough, we didn’t ask questions of them in terms of possession, they probably ended up with better stats at the line-outs and that’s another area we fell down on.
“Connacht were excellent. They took their opportunities, they hit lines, they cut us apart a couple of times and probably left disappointed at not getting a bonus point and that was the likely outcome at one stage.”
Foley takes some consolation that the Zebre game was coming nine days after Galway thus “giving us time to get a few players back on their feet. Hopefully we can get a positive response out in Zebre. We need to get momentum back into our season.”
It now seems likely that Keith Earls will finally make his return against Zebre.
“He was with us today, we just wanted to get back in around the squad,” Foley explained. “We’ll see how he trains with the squad next week. He hasn’t done so yet, instead doing a lot of work on his own and so hopefully we can get him off the treatment table and on to the pitch. It would be a big boost for us. Conor Murray has a shoulder issue and we’re told to let it rest and not have him do contact. Hopefully he’ll be back training next week.”
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