Wednesday 23 October 2019

Connacht hit new heights to claim historic victory

Munster 12 Connacht 18

Connacht’s man of the match Bundee Aki
Connacht’s man of the match Bundee Aki
Munster's Mark Chisholm is tackled by Connacht's Ultan Dillane
Munster's Andrew Conway is tackled by Connacht's Shane Delahunt
Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

The celebrations from the Connacht players at the end of a cracking contest on a bitterly cold night in Limerick told you something of the history of this contest.

Never mind the pre-season warm up here when Connacht won a match where both sides used a small army of replacements, this had points at stake. And it was the first time since 1986 that they have come away from this venue with the spoils. To add more colour to that stat, it was their first win in 38 competitive games away from home against Irish opposition.

Their supporters in the 9,424 crowd were keen to hang around afterwards and enjoy the moment, regardless of the biting wind. In a game where each side played better into the elements, Connacht had the wherewithal to survive a dodgy penalty try, and yellow card, to come out on top - their seventh win from eight starts in the Guinness Pro 12. Scarlets may overtake them at the top of the table by the time they're finished with Zebre this afternoon, but for the moment Pat Lam's side stay top, a unique development in their history.

"What I said to the players there in the changing room is that what we did out there, we do every week," Lam said. "We have a plan and we work hard at training and we did tonight what we did against Brive and what we did in Russia."

It's unlikely anyone keeps stats on these things but if there is a record of Munster being limited to 18 per cent possession and 17 per cent territory for the first 40 minutes, at home, with a gale force wind behind them, then we don't know about it. In fairness to them they did a passable impression of Connacht's approach after the break, but it was a masterclass from the team in green on how to play into the elements.

The man of the match award went to Bundee Aki, whose 78th-minute touchdown left Munster needing a converted try to win, but Aly Muldowney carried tirelessly, and John Muldoon's leadership was critical. He was binned on 66 minutes with a penalty try thrown in for good measure for an early tackle on Andrew Conway. The first bit was fair enough; the second was not.

The groundwork was laid in the first half, and Connacht didn't resort to pick and jam to go forward. Instead they got around the corner when it was on, and played the ball a few passes away from the ruck; or came back the same way if that's what the Munster defence suggested.

"That's the way they play," Munster coach Anthony Foley said of his opponents. "That's the way they played against Brive last week and that's the way they played here pre-season. We knew what we were getting and we knew the importance of trying to get a result here. And we knew it was going to be a tough game."

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The danger in all of this is that a dropped pass into the wind is likely to reverse you half the length of the pitch, but there were precious few of those, while Munster's missed tackle count of 15 before they conceded their first try was alarming. As a warning of how bad it could get when it went wrong for Connacht, however, Munster scored off their only piece of pressure in the entire half.

It came on 21 minutes when Connacht were penalised trying to exit their 22 after they had just gone 10-0 clear. Ian Keatley passed up the shot on goal in favour of going to the corner, and at the second attempt there hooker Niall Scannell - who had played a significant role in denying Ultan Dillane a try 10 minutes earlier - got over for the touchdown.

Connacht's points had come courtesy of a Craig Ronaldson penalty on 12 minutes, and then a lovely effort from the excellent Tiernan O'Halloran. Along with Robbie Henshaw and Matt Healy he was part of a really strong back three, and after great approach work from Muldowney and Kieron Marmion, O'Halloran picked his way through the scattered Munster defence with fine footwork.

They led 10-5 at the break and then went 13-5 up on 58 minutes with another Ronaldson penalty before Lam's life passed before him when his captain was binned in the penalty try incident.

With just a point in it, and Munster playing a lot better, Connacht raised their game again, getting the killer score for Aki after lovely footwork, and an offload, from Henshaw opened the gap. Connacht go to Cardiff on Friday night, a venue where they were robbed of a win last season, and where their coach was disciplined for his reaction that night. It will be interesting to see how things work out this time around.

Scorers - Munster: N Scannell try, pen try; I Keatley con. Connacht: T O'Halloran, B Aki try each; C Ronaldson 2 pens, con

Munster: A Conway; G van den Heever (D Hurley 51), K Earls, F Saili, L Amorosino; I Keatley, T O'Leary; J Cronin (D Kilcoyne 62), N Scannell, BJ Botha (J Ryan ht), D Ryan (D Foley 57), M Chisholm, CJ Stander (capt), R Copeland, J O'Donoghue

Connacht: R Henshaw; T O'Halloran (D Leader 69), B Aki, C Ronaldson, M Healy; AJ MacGinty (J Carty 46) 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)(yc 66-76), E Masterson (S O'Brien 57), J Connolly

Referee: B Whitehouse (Wales)

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