Friday 27 April 2018

Connacht begin the New Year with huge statement

Henshaw leads stunning comeback as Pat Lam's side beat Munster for just the second time in the professional era to keep top-six goal on track

Connacht's Mils Muliaina, left, and George Naoupu after their side's win
Connacht's Mils Muliaina, left, and George Naoupu after their side's win
Connacht's Robbie Henshaw, left, and Kieran Marmion celebrate after victory over Munster
George Naoupu, Connacht, is tackled by CJ Stander, Munster
Bundee Aki, Connacht, is tackled by CJ Stander, left, Ronan O'Mahony, centre, and BJ Botha, Munster
Peter O'Mahony, Munster, in action against Robbie Henshaw, Connacht
Connacht's Kieran Marmion scores his side's first try
George Naoupu, Connacht, is tackled by CJ Stander, Munster
Darragh Leader, Connacht, is tackled by Andrew Conway, left, and Billy Holland, Munster
Robbie Henshaw, Connacht
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

MILS MULIAINA was the last man to leave the Sportsground pitch, soaking up the acclaim with a broad smile that looked like it would last for days.)

Connacht were milking their moment with their 7,745 bumper crowd and why wouldn't they? Pat Lam raised a fist in defiance, Robbie Henshaw reached out and touched the faithful; this was a night they'll be talking about for a long time.

For the second time this season, they have repelled big brother. Both times they came from behind, both times they fully deserved their victory.

Having lost to Leinster and Ulster on the road, Lam's side needed this for a number of reasons. Their early-season momentum was in danger of being lost and when they conceded 13 unanswered points in the first 15 minutes, it looked bleak.

The conditions were in Munster's favour and Anthony Foley's men looked like they knew how to use them, but as the wind and rain eased the home side found their stride and dominated from then on.

Electric

Their electric backs will hog the headlines, but this win was based on an excellent lineout and scrum that gave man of the match Henshaw and his partner in crime Bundee Aki the platform to wreak havoc.

With Kieran Marmion (pictured below with Henshaw) a constant danger around the fringes and unsung heroes Quinn Roux, Willie Muldoon and Aly Muldowney carrying hard at the bigger names in the Munster pack, it was as close to a complete performance as Connacht have come this season.

What Munster would do for a pair of centres like the duo wearing green. This was only their second game together and they caused havoc at times.

"He was outstanding, he was immense," the Munster coach Anthony Foley said of Henshaw. "Physical, direct and he made good decisions in the open spaces. It would have been hard to hold a ball there tonight, but I don't think he made a mistake."

The former No 8 was left to lament his side's failure to build on their win over Leinster, but conceded that the best team had won on the night.

"There's n doubt about it. They were excellent out there. They took their opportunities and they cut us apart a couple of times, and probably leave disappointed that they didn't get a bonus point out of the game," he said.

"At one stage it was on the cards that that was the likely outcome until our fellas dug in and we went up the pitch to try and get a score, to get us momentum, to even try and win the game, but that didn't happen either."

It had all begun so brightly for the visitors who, backed by a strong wind in what Lam described as the worst conditions he's seen since arriving in Ireland, played to their strengths and pinned Connacht back.

With Peter O'Mahony outstanding and Ian Keatley looking imperious, Munster looked the sharper team and Marmion had to react quickly to beat Andrew Conway to a JJ Hanrahan chip through.

Keatley opened the scoring with a penalty forced by O'Mahony, before he found touch from inside his own '22' with a brilliant touch-finder and his captain then forced Tom McCartney over the line to give his side a five-metre lineout.

Paul O'Connell called it on himself, and O'Mahony forced his way over. Keatley's touchline conversion was outstanding and he added a second penalty after Aki came in from the side.

Around that time, the wind eased slightly and that allowed Connacht to stop taking the ball from deep from a standing start.

Conway escaped punishment for a foot-first slide on Aki that got the home crowd's heckles up and their team responded with a wonderfully worked try.

Tommy O'Donnell went off his feet, allowing Craig Ronaldson find touch and a brilliant Eoin McKeon take at the tail of the lineout gave the fly-half quick ball. He chipped over the top for Henshaw to collect, slip through Duncan Williams' grasp and draw Simon Zebo to send Marmion over the line.

The Sportsground erupted and, although Keatley extended the lead to 16-7 before half-time, the momentum had shifted in the home side's favour.

The key thing was to capitalise on it with a good start to the second half and they did it brilliantly with Henshaw scything through Keatley and Hanrahan and off-loading to Aki who was stopped inches from the line. Before Munster regrouped, Ronaldson took the ball hard and flat and crashed through Williams' tackle to score.

The fly-half injured himself in the scoring, so Darragh Leader converted as he limped off to be replaced by Miah Nikora.

Struggled

That didn't stop Connacht's march, with the New Zealander sending over a penalty when Williams dived on a Keatley knock-on from an offside position.

The Munster fly-half was experiencing a second-half dip, kicking two balls out on the full as his side struggled to establish field position.

It didn't help that Connacht were enjoying themselves so much as Roux ran through John Ryan and into Simon Zebo.

A Nikora knock-on let the Reds off the hook, but the third try wasn't long coming as an eight-man Munster shove on Connacht ball allowed Marmion break left, step inside Conway and, from the recycled ball, Muldowney crashed over.

Leader converted to make it a two-score game and, although they didn't kick on for the bonus, they managed to deny their visitors a point to take back down the road with a brilliant defensive effort as Munster threw everything at them for the final five minutes.

The line held, the Sportsground erupted and Connacht began the year in a way that suggests it could be a big one.

Connacht - M Muliaina (D McSharry 73); D Leader, R Henshaw, B Aki, D Poolman; C Ronaldson (M Nikora 43-65) (D McSharry 61-69), K Marmion; D Buckley, T McCartney (D Heffernan 17-25), R Ah You (F Bealham 51); Q Roux (U Dillane 70), A Muldowney; J Muldoon capt, W Faloon (D Heffernan 70), E McKeon (G Naoupu 56).

Munster - S Zebo; A Conway (I Dineen 65), P Howard, JJ Hanrahan, R O'Mahony; I Keatley, D Williams; J Ryan (E Guinazu 73), D Casey (K O'Byrne h-t, E Guinazu 57-62), BJ Botha (S Archer 73); B Holland (Dave O'Callaghan 69), P O'Connell; P O'Mahony (capt), T O'Donnell, CJ Stander (P Butler 69).

ref - D Wilkinson (Ulster)

Connacht24

Munster16

Irish Independent

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