Canny Munster have final word
A war of attrition won by a side seeking contrition.
As Munster confronted the prospect of losing a game they had toiled to win, they faced a second scrum on their own line as Connacht sought to extract maximum damage from a penalty award during a six-minute end-game siege.
A penalty try seemed the odds-on outcome. Cue a swift message from the Munster bench; suddenly, Dave Ryan was withdrawn injured and Wian du Preez arrived back on to add ballast.
Connacht were neutered and the wily South African's expert hit, along with Peter Stringer's late heroics, saved the day.
Gamesmanship? You decide. Connacht coach Eric Elwood was in no doubt, asserting that he did have a grievance with the late game of "silly buggers."
Munster coach Tony McGahan challenged anyone to visit Ryan in the changing-room and inspect the prop's injuries for themselves.
In any event, Tom Gleeson's 65th minute smash-and-grab try ensured Munster, despite being destroyed in the scrums yet again, eased into a seven-point lead as the Magners League enters 2011.
Worth a celebratory tipple of the sponsors' product under normal circumstances, although one presumes Munster's players preferred a cup of hot chocolate given what they've been through recently.
"No comment," chirped McGahan when asked about his side's unseemly foray into Leinster turf for their Christmas hooley.
McGahan preferred instead to alight on their "character and composure" as they neogotiated a difficult final 15 minutes at a typically windswept Sportsgrounds before an attendance of 4,795.
Connacht made a late change before kick-off, Ian Keatley switching to his preferred position of out-half following the late withdrawal of Miah Nikora through illness, while Troy Nathan slotted in at full-back.
After the traditional opening bout of Garryowens, Connacht benefited first from the seasonal burst of goodwill from their visitors, Alan Quinlan's over-judicious use of the knee while collecting a high kick affording Keatley the first sight of the sticks.
Munster-bound Keatley obliged with that fifth-minute kick but his impending employers immediately responded with their first sortie behind enemy lines and, after Connacht pulled down a maul, his opposite number struck a sweet equaliser from a tight angle four minutes later.
The trend continued to be aerial, Keatley's booming bombs marginally prevailing over Ronan O'Gara's efforts, a harbinger, perhaps, of an intense provincial duel next season; Keatley ultimately won the battle of the No 10s.
Another Keatley bomb saw Barry Murphy taken in the air on collection just on the right side of legality by Johnny O'Connor; his knock-on produced a scrum from which much was expected of Jamie Hagan on the tight side.
Instead, it was Rob Sweeney who earned the appreciate back slaps from his pack colleagues when he eviscerated Peter Borlase, earning his out-half the right to another shot at goal, at which he was just successful via a left-hand post after 15 minutes to leave it 6-3.
Sensing that Munster were off-key -- certainly their back-row and half-backs were not exerting the amount of control they would have wished -- Connacht's ambitions grew.
More aerial pressure created a platform for a former Munster player, Keith Mathews, to barrel past a hapless O'Gara and set up base camp in the scoring zone; then Cillian Willis' neat switch almost saw full-back Nathan scythe through the close-in cover; although he was held up, his side won the scrum.
Curiously, although Connacht had the scrum to the right of goal and swung the set-piece to open a decent blindside, they somehow deigned to use the open-side without communicating the fact to their outside backs; without decent numbers, they fluffed their lines.
Munster were fluffing all theirs, failing miserably to play into the driving wind and rain. At one stage, O'Gara miskicked a penalty to touch, Munster were pinged for a crooked throw and then once more obliterated in the scrum.
Ten seconds of incompetence that summed up their efforts. Connacht tried to take advantage after O'Gara missed a difficult enough long-range effort but Keatley's chance before half-time -- thanks to another scrum penalty -- went wide and the sides flocked to the radiators at half-time with the bare minimum between them.
The out-halves swapped penalties after the break but Munster were left reeling, though, when the evergreen Quinlan was stretchered off with what looked like a nasty elbow injury. Hopefully, the suspected fracture will not end his season.
Although Munster's scrum woes didn't depreciate -- their stock could hardly plunge further -- their line-outs woes further militated against them making decent inroads as the Connacht faithful sensed blood.
O'Gara, now having the proverbial shocker, delivered a blatantly forward pass to young Paddy Butler and then promptly went all Ricky Ponting on the referee, for which he received a stern warning, and the sight of Keatley's fourth penalty soaring above his head.
Now 12-6 down and barely able to find the Connacht '22' even if they had received a Sat-Nav in their Christmas stocking, O'Gara tried to respond with a long-range penalty on the hour but fell short.
And then, from nothing, the game's defining moment in the 66th minute, one appropriately borne of huge farce. Having initially pilfered a line-out superbly through Donnacha Ryan on half-way, Munster edged their way to the corner and mauled to within inches of the try-line.
Several rumbles were repulsed by the fierce tackling back-row but just when the chance seemed lost as Munster retreated to fumbling mode on their '22', a hack from Barry Murphy evaded the scrambling, shambling Connacht cover and Gleeson won the foot race to touch down before the dead-ball line.
Typically, as only he can, O'Gara erased the memory of his error-ridden evening by slotting the fiendishly difficult touchline conversion. With one bound, Munster had wriggled loose of their neighbourly upstarts.
With one more leap, an O'Gara drop-goal as Connacht suddenly imploded horribly before a stunned Sportsground faithful, they were free, 16-12 ahead and thus leaving Connacht to search fruitfully for a winning try, which in their panicked mode they were sadly unable to muster.
Connacht -- T Nathan; D Fanning, N Ta'auso, K Matthews, F Carr; I Keatley, C Willis; R Sweeney (B Fa'amausili 70), S Cronin, J Hagan; M Swift, M McCarthy; A Browne, E Taylor (M McComish h-t), J O'Connor (B Upton 80).
Munster -- P Warwick; B Murphy, T Gleeson, L Mafi, D Hurley; R O'Gara, P Stringer; W du Preez (D Ryan 72, Du Preez 80), M Sherry, P Borlase (J Hayes 57); D Ryan, I Nagle; A Quinlan (B Holland 48), N Ronan, P Butler (T O'Donnell 57).
Ref -- D Wilkinson (IRFU).