Munster 20 Connacht 18
In time-honoured fashion, Munster dug deep and needed their 16th man to overcome their own faultlines and a smart, hugely motivated Connacht to ensure they marked the fifth anniversary of Anthony Foley’s passing with a win.
Somehow, because of the day that was in it, you sensed they would do so in the end, and in dramatic fashion as well. Their skillset and execution, especially in the opposite 22, was flawed albeit they rolled their sleeves up and threatened to bludgeon Connacht into submission.
Save for the pre-ordained tactic of Joey Carbery cross-kicking for Andrew Conway and Mike Haley’s fine counter-attacking into the first-half wind, their outside backs hardly featured. Simon Zebo hardly saw the ball.
It was hard luck on Connacht, who weren’t remotely in the mood to be sacrificial lambs, with the width of the upright and two questionable decisions heavily influencing the outcome.
Their launch plays were better, they opportunistically took their scores and were defiant in the midst of Munster’s second-half storm and Thomond Park’s traditional fervour when the going gets tough for their team.
Connacht’s defeat came at a cost too, with their outstanding flanker Cian Prendergast wheeled off the pitch with his leg in a brace. Encouragingly he didn’t look in much pain, but he’s a tough young player.
Prior to the game, in a classy touch, the visiting captain Jack Carty presented a Connacht jersey inscribed with the number 8 and Axel on the back to Peter O’Mahony.
Closer to kick-off, the date was formerly acknowledged over the PA system, with mention for his wife Olive and kids Tony and Dan (all of whom had been invited to the game along with the extended family) as an image of Foley in that familiar ball-carrying gait was displayed on the big screen.
This prompted a minute-long standing ovation as the Munster players completed their traditional lap after their warm-up.
Heavy rain up until an hour before kick-off ensured the pitch was very greasy before there was that rarity, a clean break with a strike move off the game’s first lineout.
Even in defeat last week, Connacht’s launch plays were well executed and off Niall Murray’s take at the front, Carty used the decoy run of ex-Munsterman Sammy Arnold to hit Mack Hansen up the middle before he linked with Bundee Aki who had Conor Oliver, also returning to his old haunt, on his inside. When Tadhg Beirne went off his feet, Carty opened the scoring.
Connacht’s scrum, not unexpectedly, was in difficulty from the off, but Paul Boyle adroitly scooped the ball from between his feet and, but for Zebo racing back and diving full-length, Carty would have executed a 50-22 from inside his own 22.
As it was, he soon did manage the feat, although Munster survived thanks to Gavin Coombes’ strength over the ball.
As expected it soon became a feisty affair. When Peter O’Mahony took exception to Boyle trying to retrieve the ball from Niall Scannell after Arnold had won a penalty in the jackal it prompted the first two bouts of scuffling.
Aki wouldn’t have been alone in thinking the penalty against him for holding on was ridiculous but, when he came charging again, Cloete was pinged for not releasing, although not for the first or last time in the match Chris Busby showed no inclination to wait for an advantage.
Connacht went to the corner and after the maul was held up and Aki carried up, Tiernan O’Halloran cleverly palmed a loose ball out to Hansen for a finish in the corner, but replays showed the ball had gone forward.
Only Munster’s work over the ball, Cloete winning another turnover penalty, was keeping them above water. Cue a big maul and the option to go to the corner, only for Scannell’s overthrow to be gathered by Oliver.
It was very stop-start.
Prendergast also thought he had scored from 45 metres but there had been a preceding knock-on, before Arnold was harshly binned for going in higher in a double hit with Aki and clashing heads with Haley. Not even the home crowd could summon much in the way of complaint when the incident was replayed.
Indicative of a patchy first-half performance, initially Munster couldn’t translate their numerical advantage into anything tangible. There was a clean break by Conway from Craig Casey’s sumptuously disguised left-handed behind-the-back flick, but Carty made the covering tackle and Carbery couldn’t gather the low offload.
But the best feature of Munster’s game had been Haley’s counter-attack, and he ran Crossfield to link with Conway for a trademark grubber.
When a sliding O’Halloran couldn’t gather the slippery pill, Munster recycled it and Rory Scannell crosskicked to four unmarked teammates on the left. Beirne tried to trap the ball on the volley before hacking on for Cloete to win the touchdown.
Surprisingly, TMO Brian MacNeice and Busby overlooked the still replay which clearly showed, with the help of the 10 metre line, that Beirne had been in front of the ball when Scannell kick-passed.
Carbery converted to give Munster a flattering 7-6 interval lead, and Connacht could feel rightly aggrieved with the Arnold yellow card and the award of the try.
On the resumption, Munster sought to maximise their advantage by going to the corner but Cloete was held up over the line by Carty, Matthew Burke and John Porch.
From a Coombes charge and offload to Beirne, Munster resorted to a route one, pick-and-jam assault, but when Cloete burrowed toward the line, Boyle won a penalty in the jackal.
However, Dave Heffernan’s overthrow went straight to Scannell and a penalty for offside enabled Carbery to make it 10-6.
Connacht weren’t done though, going up the line and stretching Munster on both edges after another clever launch saw Heffernan wrap around and hit Blade on an out-and-in line.
Boyle tapped a close-range penalty and when Jean Kleyn and Cloete both went low, he simply dived over them to score but, crucially, Carty’s conversion drifted onto the outside of the post.
Connacht mucked up the restart and Munster mucked up another attack before a maul penalty lead to Carbery restoring the home lead.
In one of the season’s more unusual entries, Shane Delahunt came on, immediately gathered a Munster overthrow inside his own half, hoofed upfield, saw the ball squirm away from Conway for a 50-22 and punched the air in celebration. Alas, his ensuing throw was crooked.
Even so, Connacht kept coming, Abraham Papali’i putting them on the front foot from turnover ball as they went through the phases up to the Munster 22 before he knocked on.
Whereupon, out of nothing, Carbery took too long in winding up for a downfield punt which was charged