Saturday 20 January 2018

Munster title bid back on track

Munster 42 Connacht 20

Munster's Simon Zebo scores his side's second try depite the tackle of Darragh Leader
Munster's Simon Zebo scores his side's second try depite the tackle of Darragh Leader

John Fallon

It took them a while to get on top but Munster got their Pro12 title aspirations back on track when they ran in six converted tries at Thomond Park.

In the process, they gained revenge for their loss to Connacht on New Year's Day and kept up their drive for a home semi-final after an impressive second-half display.

Connacht made a contest of it until the third quarter but the injury-ravaged side fell away and are still looking for their first win away to Munster since 1986.

Despite the wind, Connacht out-half Jack Carty gave them an early boost when he landed a penalty from the right touchline after Simon Zebo was pinged for not releasing.

Connacht, bidding for only their second ever away win against an Irish province in the professional era, were well up for the fight with prop Denis Buckley and inside centre, Conor Finn.

Both sides struggled to string quality phases together but Munster got a foothold after 13 minutes when good pressure yielded a try for Billy Holland.

No.8 CJ Stander, again their key man, was involved several times in the build-up to the try and, when he broke off a five-metre scrum, Holland was able to step inside George Naoupu to score beside the right post.

Ian Keatley added the conversion to make it 7-3 and it remained that way until half-time.

Connacht cut the margin to a point six minutes after the restart, when Munster were penalised for collapsing their own scrum in front of their posts and Carty made no mistake with the easy kick. Keatley had a chance to cancel that at the other end six minutes later, but his kick from 37 metres went wide.

However, Munster put distance between them after 56 minutes, building several phases through Dave O'Callaghan, Tommy O'Donnell, Billy Holland and BJ Botha to set up a good maul, and replacement hooker, Duncan Casey, got the touchdown when they rumbled over. Keatley converted to make it 14-6.

Anthony Foley's men pushed on from there and it was another moment of magic from Zebo which moved them within bonus point territory, when he did superbly to hold a Denis Hurley pass on his boot laces and slide over. Keatley again converted to leave it 21-6.

Connacht briefly threatened a comeback when Keith Earls was unable to hold a Garryowen from John Cooney under pressure, and Miah Nikora raced through and scored. But Munster responded superbly with Andrew Smith securing the bonus point after some excellent attacking, before Earls sent his captain Hurley away for a fifth try.

Shane O'Leary pulled back a try for Connacht, but they never looked like getting within bonus point territory and Munster ran in a sixth try at the death from Earls.

Scorers - Munster: B Holland, D Casey, S Zebo, A Smith, D Hurley, K Earls tries; I Keatley (3) and JJ Hanrahan (3) cons. Connacht: M Nikora, S O'Leary tries; M Nikora 2 cons; J Carty 2 pens

Munster: F Jones; K Earls, A Smith, D Hurley, S Zebo (R O'Mahony 73); I Keatley (JJ Hanrahan 69), D Williams (N Cronin 73); J Ryan (D Kilcoyne 60), E Guinazu (D Casey 53), S Archer (BJ Botha 53); Donncha O'Callaghan (J O'Donoghue 65), B Holland; Dave O'Callaghan, T O'Donnell, CJ Stander (P Butker 73).

Connacht: T O'Halloran; D Leader, D Poolman, C Finn (S O'Leary 68), M Healy; J Carty, K Marmion (J Cooney 58); D Buckley (R Loughney 65), T McCartney, R Ah You (F Bealham 63); M Kearney (Q Roux 58), A Muldowney; J Muldoon, E Masterson, G Naoupu.

Referee: L Hodges (WRU).

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