Friday 21 July 2017

Connacht stung by Munster's show of strength

Connacht's Fionn Carr is tackled by Munster duo Dave Foley and Dave Ryan at the Sportsground yesterday. RAY RYAN / SPORTSFILE
Connacht's Fionn Carr is tackled by Munster duo Dave Foley and Dave Ryan at the Sportsground yesterday. RAY RYAN / SPORTSFILE
David Kelly

David Kelly

As Connacht battered the Munster line in a gripping Sportsground finale, before being halted by what the locals saw as the latest seemingly imprudent blast from Alain Rolland's whistle, the sense of resignation was almost fatal.

"I can't get no satisfaction," the song blared at the final whistle. After the 1/2 favourites coughed up a glorious opportunity to inch a step nearer the Holy Grail of Heineken Cup qualification, one hoped that the finale wasn't a premonition of things to come.

Could this 80 minutes represent a microcosm of yet another season of western unfulfilment, the majority of the 4,125 crowd muttered as they sought their nearest exits?

Certainly, there was a familiar theme of a sluggish start followed by spurts of the good, bad and ugly before a storming finish that ultimately bore no fruit, although the bonus point may yet be a cherished one when the final sums are done at Ravenhill next month.

For a team of supposedly callow youths, Munster's approach to this encounter was steeped in maturity, a barnstorming back-row defensive effort allowing Peter Stringer and Paul Warwick (wearing No 12 but effectively playing No 10) to keep the hungry home side at arm's length.

As Denis Hurley texted the outstanding James Coughlan immediately after the game, "That's what the Munster jersey is all about." Fools are they who dismissed their team-sheet as evidence that they were undermining this gripping Magners League.

"The forward pack was pretty first-rate and there were a number of experienced players in the back-line," enthused Tony McGahan. "It was a tremendous show of depth and show of fighting qualities that Munster have."

Munster predominantly bossed the collisions, strangled on the deck and suffocated in defence. Connacht couldn't put width on their game and rarely put more than three or four phases together.

"Losing the breakdown put the kibosh on a lot of our game," bemoaned coach Michael Bradley, bravely seeing the bright side of eking out successive bonus points to keep the pressure on an Ulster side just four points above them in the Heineken Cup dogfight.

Two early Warwick penalties pushed Munster ahead and Connacht would have had source for early alarm, given their propensity to cough up cheap ball, whether in contact or on the floor.

Bernie Upton won a couple of sweet off-the-top balls with deft hands on two occasions in good attacking positions but the ball was coughed up by the time he could reach the next phase.

Anxiety mocked their every move.

"We were trying stuff out there that wasn't on," admitted captain John Muldoon. "Real rabbit-out-of-the-hat stuff."

They did manage to ease their way into the game and the game sparked to life with a superbly taken try from Johnny O'Connor in the 13th minute.

Fionn Carr did some sparkling work down his left wing in the initial stages from deep -- albeit he appeared to knock-on -- and, as the move shifted in-field with Ian Keatley's burst, Sean Cronin pummelled a red dam of defence to provide the platform for Niva Ta'auso to attack a soft shoulder and off-load to O'Connor, running a superb line.

Keatley converted and the home crowd crowed in the sunshine. They remained on the front foot but were undone by a scintillating 32nd-minute Munster try, emanating from the latest in a multitude of cheap Connacht turnovers. Nick Williams, delivering an immense hour's display amidst a storming back-row, belted into open country and bounced off the not insignificant frame of George Naoupu, before off-loading to Tony Buckley.

Gavin Duffy bravely tackled him but Warwick was in deep support and, with numbers weighing, he found Ronan for a run-in try.

A missed penalty from either side left it 7-11 at half-time and Connacht, who finished the first half strongly, needed a strong start to the second. They didn't get it, failing to emerge from their half for full 12 minutes as well as coughing up another brilliantly worked try from the improving Scott Deasy just two minutes in.

The young full-back started and finished the move, gathering his own high kick before Williams' sleight of hand allowed left-winger Simon Zebo to send Deasy into the corner, converted by Warwick for 7-18.

They could have been out of sight were it not for a terrific Muldoon turnover virtually on his own line just before the hour mark when Munster were closing in on what would have been the game-clinching score.

However, Connacht were handed a lifeline when Zebo was binned for a deliberate knock-on and, with the westerners winning the scrum battle, Naoupu barrelled over after belated concerted pressure.

Munster's stern defence resisted the late surge though and, with tired bodies and minds now turning to the visit of Leinster's brightest and best in just two days' time, the battered bodies in the home dressing-room -- they are, at the very least, likely to be minus their midfield and a prop -- must maintain their spirits.

"We said in the dressing-room after Leinster that we wouldn't have got anything in the past," said Bradley. "But we did. We were one point closer to Ulster. Now we're another point closer, although they got one on Friday. It keeps the pressure on both of us."

After Leinster's visit, they could then in theory have moved from the basement with a game against Scarlets, currently two points ahead of them, to come next weekend.

Their European odyssey must remain in the back of the minds for theory to translate into practice though. We'll learn much more about Connacht's facility to handle pressure this week.

Connacht -- G Duffy; T Nathan, N Ta'auso (A Wynne 72), K Matthews, F Carr; I Keatley M Nukora 48), F Murphy (C O'Loughlin 71); B Wilkinson (R Loughney 48), S Cronin (A Flavin 62), J Hagan (B Wilkinson 56), M Swift (M McCarthy 49), B Upton, J Muldoon (M McComish 72), J O'Connor, G Naoupu.

Munster -- S Deasy; D Barnes, T Gleeson, P Warwick, S Zebo; D Cusack (J Manning 75), P Stringer; D Ryan, D Varley (D Fogarty 62), T Buckley, B Holland (P O'Mahoney 67), M O'Driscoll (capt), N Williams (D Foley 53), N Ronan, J Coughlan.

Ref -- A Rolland.

Irish Independent

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