Connacht 20 Munster 16
Connacht sealed a much-needed Guinness PRO14 victory at the expense of derby rivals Munster on a raucous night at The Sportsground which saw the visitors’ wing Andrew Conway sent off.
A 66th minute try from Connacht centre Tom Farrell, converted by replacement fly-half Craig Ronaldson gave the home side the winning edge and punished Munster for Conway’s red card after he collided in mid-air with starting number 10 Jack Carty.
For Connacht it was the final point to prove on a night where there were plenty in the wake of Joe Schmidt’s Ireland selection for next month’s Tests against South Africa, Fiji and Argentina. All eyes had been on the opposing full-backs Tiernan O’Halloran and Simon Zebo, both overlooked by the national head coach.
That the two 15s each were in top form for their provinces ahead of Thursday’s squad announcement underlined the surprise at their omission, though Zebo, having earlier in the week revealed his decision to leave Munster at the end of the season knew he was gambling with his Ireland future.
Schmidt was not at the Sportsground but assistants Andy Farrell, Greg Feek and Richie Murphy were and they witnessed both 15s make an early impact on a lively, feisty, opening 40 minutes.
Both scored tries with Zebo on the board first after just four minutes as Connacht knocked on in front of their posts.
The home side put in an almighty shove at the resulting scrum but the broken play suited Munster better and centre Rory Scannell, another back ignored by Schmidt having played three Tests on tour this summer, sniped through the crowd before offloading superbly out the back door to the supporting runner Zebo, an emphatic response to the Ireland boss.
Ian Keatley converted and amid a string of errors, sporadic outbreaks of smart play and a series of off the ball dust-ups, added a 17th-minute penalty before Connacht made their breakthrough.
Fly-half Jack Carty had missed a penalty following a CJ Stander high tackle on Ultan Dillane but the home side quickly made amends as back-rower Jarrad Butler picked and went off the back of a ruck to make yards in the Munster half, then popped up again at the next ruck to feed Bundee Aki, the Ireland new-boy toasting his first call-up as a qualified Irishman by providing a short pass outside for O’Halloran to run onto and break through the Munster line for a well-worked and deserved try, converted by Carty.
The to and fro continued as Keatley sent over a penalty to establish a 13-7 lead just before the 30-minute mark but Carty replied a minute before the interval to leave the game neatly poised at 13-10 in Munster’s favour at the end of the first half.
Munster boss Rassie Erasmus wasted little time changing gears as the second half got underway, replacing fly-halves as Keatley made way for JJ Hanrahan on 47 minutes, the replacement’s first involvement to knock on under little pressure and prompt an ironic chant of “There’s only one Ian Keatley” from a home supporter on the Clan Terrace. It was to prove a costly error, the ensuing scrum producing a big Connacht drive and penalty award from Nigel Owens, Carty stepping up to knock over kick and level the game at 13-all with half an hour remaining.
There were plenty more twists in this game, though, the first of which saw Munster wing Andrew Conway sent off on 61 minutes. Conway collided with Carty as the fly-half sent up a kick, turning into the Connacht man and connecting with an elbow to the kicker’s head. Carty would play no further part, helped off the field, and nor would Conway, the TMO deeming his challenge to be late and dangerous.
The home side failed to take advantage, initially, conceding a penalty to Hanrahan, who break the tie with three points from distance in the 65 minute, but from the restart Connacht made their numerical advantage pay, centre Tom Farrell making the most of a Rory Scannell missed tackle to break free from the edge of the 22 and score under the posts. Ronaldson converted and Connacht had a 20-16 lead to defend for 12 minutes.
Depleted Munster pressed for a response but their urgency led to errors, a knock-on inside the 22 and Connacht’s tenacious defence driving the visiting ball carriers back tackle by tackle. Still Munster retained possession though, and they regained territory, captain Peter O’Mahony taking them over the 10-metre line, Chris Farrell driving them closer to the 22.
Yet still Connacht held firm and the roar which greeted the final whistle may just have been heard back in Limerick.
CONNACHT: T O’Halloran; D Leader, B Aki, T Farrell, C Kelleher (N Adeolokun, 53); J Carty (C Ronaldson, 61), K Marmion; D Buckley, T McCartney (D Heffernan, 68), F Bealham (C Carey, 70); U Dillane (Q Roux, 68), J Cannon; E McKeon, J Butler, J Muldoon – captain (E Masterson, 75).
MUNSTER: S Zebo; A Conway, C Farrell, R Scannell, K Earls; I Keatley (Hanrahan, 47), C Murray; D Kilcoyne (L O’Connor, 51), R Marshall (K O’Byrne, 51), J Ryan (Archer, 47); M Flanagan (S McCarthy, 70), B Holland; P O’Mahony - captain, T O’Donnell (J O’Donoghue, 63), CJ Stander.
Red card: Conway 61 mins
Referee: Nigel Owens (Wales)
THE 60 SECOND REPORT
Key moment: The sending off of Andrew Conway at the start of the final quarter tipped the balance in Connacht’s favour after a tense and hard-fought opening hour’s play. Initially, though, it was Munster who scored first after they were reduced to 14 men but Connacht more than cancelled out JJ Hanrahan’s penalty with a Chris Farrell try, converted by Craig Ronaldson.
Talking point: With Joe Schmidt’s backroom staff watching on, it was the players overlooked by the Ireland head coach for the November Tests who shone brightest, both Simon Zebo and Tiernan O’Halloran scoring first-half tries while Andrew Conway’s involvement in the Guinness Series may be shortlived after he saw red for a dangerous tackle.
Key man: Through no fault of his own, Bundee Aki’s call-up to the Ireland camp after qualifying through residency has caused a stir but the Kiwi-born star proved he can silence his critics with his impressive work-rate, speed and vision in midfield, his play both dazzling and hard-nosed as he carried the game to Munster and unlocked the visitors’ defence with quick-thinking and sharp passing.
Ref watch: Nigel Owens annoyed Connacht supporters with some of his penalty decisions at ruck-time but there were no arguments from the home fans when he took his TMO’s advice and sent Andrew Conway off.
Injuries: Connacht lost fly-half Jack Carty to a head injury after he was caught by Conway’s elbow while flanker Jarrad Butler had to be helped from the field after going down just before the final whistle.
Next up: Just one more game for the provinces before the November Test window gets underway and the non-internationals take a three-week break. For Munster there is a home game in Cork against Bernard Jackman’s Dragons while Connacht welcome the Cheetahs to Galway.
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