Brilliant Connacht win in Munster for first time in 29 years
MUNSTER 12 CONNACHT 18
BUNDEE AKI beat his chest in defiance after his try settled an entertaining derby in Connacht’s favour to create history for Connacht as they won in Limerick for the first time since 1986.
It means the westerners retain control at the top of the table, four points clear of Leinster and they thoroughly deserved to be there.
The New Zealander and Dublin’s US Eagles international AJ MacGinty were the only non-Irish-qualified players in their starting XV but Pat Lam’s men played with real ambition and width throughout. When they needed to defend, they did so with great discipline and when they lost captain John Muldoon to a yellow card and conceded a penalty try in the same moment, they showed huge character to come through.
They celebrated wildly when the game came to an end as their sizeable contingent in the 9,424 crowd made their presence felt.
Munster were poor in the first-half, but came out with real intent after half-time and still couldn’t break down the green wall in front of them. CJ Stander was quiet and turned down two kickable penalties that could have made a big difference.
However, it was the westerners’ evening. Connacht bristled with intent from the start, trusting their skills while playing into a strong wind and taking Munster through numerous phases. Their wide shape forced Munster to spread their defence, meaning they found holes in the midfield and found gaps in the home defence.
During the first-half, they held had 77% possession and spent 63% of the time in Munster territory, forcing Munster to make 120 tackles, missing 22 in 40 minutes – a stat Alan Quinlan described as “abysmal” at half-time.
Ultan Dillane might have opened the scoring early after a solid scrum saw Tiernan O’Halloran attack the No10 channel, Bundee Aki carried hard and then AJ MacGinty changed the point of attack and off-loaded. His intended target was Robbie Henshaw, but the ball went to second-row Dillane who was held up over the line by Niall Scannell and Francis Saili.
Robin Copeland broke up the subsequent attack with a big counter-ruck, but they got a deserved first score through the boot of Craig Ronaldson who made no mistake when Donnacha Ryan went high on MacGinty.
Their patient, inventive attacking play paid off after 18 minutes when the excellent Aly Muldowney went up the guts and punched a hole, captain John Muldoon followed his lead and offloaded to Kieran Marmion who was hauled down by Keith Earls. The scrum-half was sucked in, but Denis Buckley stepped in and found O’Halloran who saw space between Scannell and Mark Chisholm and sped through the gap and over the line.
Ronaldson converted and Munster found themselves 10-0 down. Connacht’s ambition came at a price as the centre was caught in possession by Saili who forced a penalty and the Munster maul proved effective as Niall Scannell got over after Connacht had hauled their first effort down.
Ian Keatley failed to convert and Munster rarely saw the ball again before half-time, living on their defensive breakdown work when Connacht ball-carriers got isolated or the odd poor handling error.
They got into half-time just five points down and came out swinging after the break, with Copeland surging into enemy territory only for Henshaw to chop him down and the green defence to scramble successfully.
That gave them a foot-hold, however and with Copeland growing more prominent and Gerhard van den Heever splitting front-rows Shane Delahunt and Nathan White in open field Munster got into the ’22, only for Ronaldson to turn the ball over and the South African wing to knock on allowing Henshaw to kick the ball deep.
Nothing came of their pressure as Aki was harshly penalised by the video referee for a high tackle, as Earls escaped sanction for a worse effort on Henshaw in the same phase of play.
That allowed Munster an opportunity to attack, but a van den Heever slip let Connacht off the hook as they showed great discipline in defence.
Eventually, that slipped as Eoghan Masterson strayed offside but when CJ Stander turned down points and went to the corner, the No8 made up for it by stealing the ball back and Marmion cleared.
The men in green extended their lead when their scrum put Munster on the back-foot and Muldoon got in over the ball to force Denis Hurley to hold on and give away the penalty which allowed Ronaldson slot his second penalty and make it a two-score game.
Unlike the first-half, it was Munster who were asking questions of their opponents in this half though and Earls surged through a gap to put Connacht on the back-foot before Ian Keatley broke George Naoupu’s tackle and attempted to find Andrew Conway.
He had disappeared, however, thanks to Muldoon’s early tackle. Referee Nigel Whitehouse went upstairs and decreed that Conway would have scored so gave a penalty try and sent the Connacht skipper to the sin-bin.
Keatley converted to make it a one-point game and suddenly Munster’s tails were up. Stander finally got the ball in his hands, before Dave Kilcoyne and Lucas Gonzalez Amorosino sent Duncan Williams free down the right only for O’Halloran to catch him.
A John Ryan knock-on allowed the visitors draw breath for a moment, but the pressure was telling as they messed up a lineout on the edge of the Munster ’22 when they had a chance to spend some time in Munster territory.
Still, their defence kept the Reds pinned back and a brilliant counter-ruck by Sean O’Brien and Dave Heffernan forced Scannell into playing the ball on the deck. However, Ronaldson sent his kickable penalty wide and the gap stayed a single point.
They managed to survive the 10 minutes without their captain without conceding, however, with Henshaw growing in prominence as he stepped in to carry repeatedly at the Munster defence.
And it was the Ireland star who finally found the breathing space, showing brilliant feet to ghost past Earls and off-loading to Aki who showed wonderful dexterity to touch down in the corner under pressure from van den Heever.
The referee took a long look at the transfer before awarding the try and Ronaldson couldn’t convert from the touchline to keep the game alive.
Munster attempted to come back, but despite Andrew Conway winning the kick-off, Williams knocked on at the base of a ruck and the home side never regained possession.
MUNSTER - A Conway; G van der Heever (D Hurley 51), K Earls, F Saili, L Gonzalez Amorosino; I Keatley, T O'Leary (D Williams 66); J Cronin (D Kilcoyne 62), N Scannell, BJ Botha (J Ryan h-t); D Ryan (D Foley 57), M Chisholm; CJ Stander (capt), J O'Donoghue, R Copeland.
CONNACHT - R Henshaw; T O'Halloran (D Leader 69), B Aki, C Ronaldson, M Healy; AJ MacGinty (J Carty 47), K Marmion; D Buckley (R Loughney 55), S Delahunt (D Heffernan 62), N White (F Bealham 59); U Dillane (G Naoupu 64), A Muldowney; J Muldoon (capt), J Connolly, E Masterson (S O’Brien 57).
Ref - B Whitehouse (Wales)