Tuesday 20 February 2018

Thrilling win a statement of Connacht's new stature

Connacht 35 Munster 14

Niyi Adeolokun touches down for Connacht’s third try despite the tackle of Darren Sweetnam. Photo: Stephen McCarthy / Sportsfile
Niyi Adeolokun touches down for Connacht’s third try despite the tackle of Darren Sweetnam. Photo: Stephen McCarthy / Sportsfile
Munster's Rory Scannell is tackled by Connacht's Peter Robb and Tom McCartney. Photo: Seb Daly / Sportsfile
Connacht's Peter Robb is tackled by Munster's Johnny Holland and Rory Scannell. Photo: Seb Daly / Sportsfile
Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

If you reckoned that the mental and physical effort expended by Connacht last weekend, while Munster were watching from the comfort of home, would be their undoing in the Sportsground last night then you underestimated the will of this group. Against a fresher team they finished both halves on the front foot.

Last week their coach Pat Lam spoke of the menu in front of his squad: one more win would sort their participation in next season's Champions Cup; two would guarantee them top four in the Pro12; and three would see them at home in the semis of that competition. The win, with a bonus point tagged on, was outstanding.

And it puts further wind in their sails for the away trip to Treviso in a fortnight and then home to Glasgow while a deflated Munster have two home games to look forward to: Edinburgh and Scarlets, both of whom lost this weekend. The Scots are ahead of Munster on points' difference.

It was a terrific game, enjoyed by a crowd of 7,876, facilitated in the first place by lovely weather and in the second by two teams who wanted to play. If you look at Munster nowadays you can see the remains of the game Rob Penney was trying to achieve, though currently the width is coupled with a threat down the middle of the field, which was missing from the East-West version in his day.

As for Connacht, they still overdo their exits when it's crying out for a bit more pragmatism and it would cost them seven points just as it had undermined them against Grenoble last weekend. Still, they are great to watch.

At one stage in the first half it looked like getting away from them when after 24 minutes they trailed 14-6 - two tries to nil, with the sun and breeze at their backs. And they were good tries as well, the first a great finish from Simon Zebo on 11 minutes after Stephen Archer had carried well and Jack O'Donoghue had provided a crucial link.

The second was a mauled lineout, fast and accurate, and by the time Johnny Holland had kicked the conversion the Reds looked good almost everywhere. The exception was the scrum where referee Ben Whitehouse started out on Archer's case, and then, in a key turning point, binned loose head James Cronin when another scrum had gone down.

Its timing was ideal for the home team for moments earlier man of the match Bundee Aki had butchered a try chance with a bullet pass to Kieran Marmion when a flat delivery would have done fine. With Cronin gone Connacht moved up a gear and four minutes after the prop went off Niyi Adeolokun went over for a brilliant try after Aki and the excellent Finlay Bealham had combined well.

The temperature went up another few degrees when Billy Holland followed Cronin after being done at a ruck a few metres from his own line. With 40 minutes on the clock Connacht went for the scrum, and were rewarded with a penalty try when it reversed at speed.

That 14 point haul in less than five minutes saw them go in 20-14 ahead at the break, with the promise of the first 10 minutes of the second half against a seven man pack. Ironically it was when Munster were restored to their full complement that Connacht struck again.

If Matt Healy is the hottest property currently on the Irish scene then Adeolokun is not far behind him. Just when it was required he scored his second try after a wicked bounce off a Henshaw grubber caught Darren Sweetnam off balance. It took the TMO to sort out the finish but the try was good.

When next he was called into play it was with a different result. And it tore a hole in Munster's chances. They had gone to touch with a penalty that looked to be working well with phase after phase on the home line, ending with an acrobatic dive by Francis Saili. He spilled it. Bealham, when he got his chance on 67 minutes, did not. Game over.

Scorers - Connacht: Adeolokun 2 tries, Penalty try, Bealham try; O'Leary 3 pens, 3 cons) Munster: Zebo, Sherry try each; Holland 2 cons

Connacht: R Henshaw; N Adeolokun, B Aki (F Carr 69), P Robb (J Carty 74), M Healy; S O'Neill, K Marmion (J Cooney 67); D Buckley (R Loughney 74), T McCartney (J Harris-Wright 74), F Bealham (JP Cooney 68), U Dillane, A Muldowney (A Browne 64), S O'Brien (J Connolly 72), J Muldoon (capt), E McKeon

Munster: S Zebo; D Sweetnam (A Conway 54), F Saili, R Scannell, K Earls; J Holland (I Keatley 68), C Murray; J Cronin (yc 33-43; D Kilcoyne 54), M Sherry (N Scannell 54), S Archer (J Ryan 69), D Ryan (J Coghlan 69), B Holland (yc 40-50), CJ Stander (capt), J O'Donoghue (D Kilcoyne temp 40-46; R Copeland 56), T O'Donnell

Referee: B Whitehouse (Wales)

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