Munster warm up for Toulon with facile Connacht win
Connacht 23 Munster 32
MUNSTER strolled to victory in late evening sunshine at Galway’s Sportsground to get back to winning ways ahead of next week’s Heineken Cup clash with Toulon.
The win moves Rob Penney’s men back into second on the RaboDirect Pro12 table with two games to go, although Glasgow Warriors – who beat them last week – are four points behind them with a game in hand to come.
In front of an expectant full house that included Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt watching closely among the 6,227 spectators, Connacht were looking to end their run of 10 defeats to Irish opponents in a row but they were their own worst enemies at times as Munster capitalised on first-half mistakes to give themselves a commanding lead.
With Paul O’Connell leading the charge, the visitors simply made less errors than the men in green who played plenty of rugby but were left rueing dropped balls, lineout malfunctions and an intercept try that killed the game as a contest.
They made a decent fist of a second-half comeback and scored three tries themselves, but Munster were simply too strong as they collected the winning bonus point.
The visitors took the lead through Miah Nikora’s 14th minute penalty, but having defended well for much of the opening quarter they handed the initiative back to the European semi-finalists when Willie Faloon spilled the restart.
From the scrum, Paddy Butler popped the ball to Duncan Williams who drew Faloon and passed inside to Andrew Conway who took it at speed and skinned Kieran Marmion to score.
Ian Keatley converted, but Munster repaid the Easter charity when Butler himself dropped Nikora’s kick-off and Connacht hit back with a brilliant move off the set-piece that saw Eoin Griffin’s cut-out pass release the excellent Darragh Leader who drew Denis Hurley and sent Matt Healy over to touch down.
The westerners’ tails were up despite Nikora missing the conversion, but Faloon’s rustiness after a long injury lay-off was having an effect and the Ulsterman conceded a penalty that Keatley sent over to put his side back in front.
Still Connacht came, with Leader to the fore with a brilliant counter that was followed up by strong Henshaw and Healy carries before Nikora cross-kicked to Danie Poolman whose foot strayed into touch before he managed to dot down.
Referee Marius Mitrea was playing advantage and Connacht kicked to the corner, but the maul set-up was sloppy and Munster could clear.
Pat Lam’s side were still intent on attacking, but the game turned on the next play as the backs moved the ball wide but Robbie Henshaw’s pass to Leader was well read by Gerhard van den Heever who coasted home.
Keatley converted and Connacht’s heads dropped further when Eoin McKeon’s attempted off-load went forward and Williams brilliantly chipped over the green line and collected before sending Hurley under the posts.
Lam’s side went in with their heads bowed and on resumption Munster scented blood and went in search of the bonus point.
A couple of early mauls almost got them over, but CJ Stander couldn’t ground the ball and the hosts managed to escape unscathed.
And they managed to pull a score back themselves as they finally got some field position through a penalty which Nikora sent to touch. Their maul didn’t make it, but they stayed patient and worked an overlap where debutant Conor Gilsenan sent Eoin McKeon over.
Nikora missed the conversion and the gap stayed at 14 points. Henshaw kept it that way with a brilliant rip on Kiloyne near the line that changed the momentum but a Munster choke tackle after the home side had worked their way back up to the ’22 halted the charge.
They weren’t helped when Hurley somehow got away with a blatant knock-on when touch-judge David Wilkinson adjudged Eoin Griffin had slapped the ball out of his hand, denying Connacht a scrum on the edge of the ‘22.
Munster tried their best to mess it up but Henshaw couldn’t quite take advantage and knocked on, but Nikora was able to narrw the gap further when Rodney Ah You forced a penalty with a brilliant ruck steal.
Suddenly the Sportsground began to believe something special might happen, but Conway’s dancing feet got him through a gap in the Connacht defence to put Munster on the front-foot but, having won the penalty, they messed up the maul set-up and allowed another bonus point chance pass.
Their scrum gave them another opportunity, forcing a penalty that Williams tapped and went wide but Denis Buckley forced a superb turnover.
Still Munster attacked, with Henshaw forcing Conway into touch but the pressure finally told when O’Connell forced an error in Connacht’s lineout, Donncha O’Callaghan brilliantly won the ball from Ah You and, after a couple of tries from pick-and-goes, Butler powered over to secure the extra point.
The westerners had the final say when Poolman brilliantly read and held a stray Munster pass and raced home, with Dan Parks drop-kicking the conversion over to bring the scoring to a close.
Before the end, Munster managed to get Conor Murray a short stint at out-half as their minds switched to the European champions in Marseille next week.
CONNACHT – D Leader (D McSharry 52); D Poolman, R Henshaw, E Griffin, M Healy; M Nikora (D Parks 70), K Marmion (F Murphy 76); R Loughney (D Buckley 58), J Harris-Wright (J Dineen 74), R Ah You (F Bealham 74); M Kearney, A Browne; J Muldoon (capt), W Faloon (C Gilsenan 49), E McKeon (A Muldowney 54).
MUNSTER – D Hurley (R O’Mahony 74); G van den Heever, J Murphy, J Downey, A Conway; I Keatley (C Murray 74), D Williams (G Hurley 74); D Kilcoyne (A Cotter 76), D Varley (capt) (Q MacDonald 70), J Ryan; Donncha O’Callaghan, P O’Connell (B Holland 76); CJ Stander, S Dougall (T O’Donnell 59), P Butler.