Dominant Munster find form at just the right moment
Connacht 24 Munster 31
Johann van Graan was unwilling to make any bold declarations about his team's performance in Galway, even if it looked like their best of the campaign to date.
Quietly, he will have been satisfied as his team made the journey home. After a sticky end to last year, this was the perfect time to produce a performance of such quality against a competitive opponent.
Beating Leinster was important, but this was far more impressive. The men in red played with control and physicality and, when they won the collisions, their attack began to sing.
Emotion aside, this was the most important of the three Christmas interpros and that was reflected in Van Graan's team selection.
He got his reward as this 5-1 points win kept Connacht at arm's length, but also propelled Munster into top spot in Conference A after Glasgow followed their two losses to Edinburgh with a shock defeat to Benetton.
The crunch part of a defining period comes in the next fortnight as the two-time European winners' Champions Cup fate is determined, but this was the perfect way to warm up for the back-to-back meetings with English opposition.
There are a number of backline injury concerns after a host of players shipped knocks, while John Ryan was withdrawn with a suspected concussion and will go through the return to play protocols.
The six-day turnaround to Friday's all-important trip to Gloucester will put pressure on the medical department, but the coaching staff will at least hope that a corner has been turned when it comes to performance.
Connacht hung in the game well, but Munster were the dominant force and deserved winners. Tadhg Beirne was once again immense, Peter O'Mahony was everywhere and Joey Carbery enjoyed the benign conditions in Galway.
Van Graan even got to trial the combination of Carbery at full-back with Tyler Bleyendaal at out-half and the duo combined for the bonus point score.
At just the right time, there are signs that things are starting to click.
Having watched the first 50 minutes from the bench in front of the Clan Terrace, Conor Murray came on to help close things out and the Ireland star was happy with the team's performance.
"I was impressed with what I saw. It can be a tough game against Connacht because they do attack a lot. They like to counter-attack, they're dangerous," he said.
"I thought, coming on, I was just looking to fit in and get into our system, but there was a good calmness about us, especially when we went under pressure late in the game.
"There was just a good clarity and we knew what we were about. We executed a lot of what we were trying to do pretty well. It's never the perfect game, but a really good performance to build into Europe.
"Those three interpros over Christmas, and rotations in the squad, a lot of lads who are close to the team get a bit of game-time and who knows what will happen next week with selection, with injuries or whatever. I think the Christmas period was really beneficial for our squad."
Munster fans will be watching for today's injury bulletin with interest.
"It's pretty early to say," Van Graan said. "We've got a few knocks. We've got three or four backs that got knocks and like you guys know, it takes 24 hours to make an assessment.
"Up front also, Pete (O'Mahony) came off with a bit of a knock, I don't think it's serious. John Ryan (was removed for a) HIA, so he'll go through the normal process.
"(Dan) Goggin and Chris Farrell picked up knocks, Earlsy (Keith Earls) picked up a knock through the game, Andrew Conway picked up a knock, Alex Wootton picked up a knock, it's only really Mur (Murray) and Alby (Mathewson) that didn't. But we'll reassess on Monday and then do our planning from there."
Their review will focus on the start to both halves that saw them concede early tries, but there was much to admire about how they bounced back.
It will make for uncomfortable viewing for Arno Botha, who was twice dispossessed in contact - the first time by Tom Farrell who raced clear to score the opening try.
Connacht rarely saw the ball for the rest of the half, with Earls setting up a try for O'Mahony before Dan Goggin powered over after good work from Mathewson.
A Jack Carty penalty before half-time was followed by a try from Cian Kelleher after more superb play from the excellent Farrell.
Three points down, Munster stepped up their game and Mathewson's intelligent pass put Goggin over for his second after good work from Earls, Chris Farrrell and Beirne.
Carbery added a conversion and a penalty before Bleyendaal put him over for a fourth try. Carty hit back with a try to earn Connacht a point, but they could get no closer.
Van Graan was pleased with his side's attacking play.
"We are creating opportunities but not finishing them, but I thought we finished our opportunities and that showed on the scoreboard," he said..
"To score four tries away from home, we'll take that every day of the week and I thought we were more accurate tonight.
"Our maul went really well and that bought us penalties and Joey kicked it to touch. It buys you field position and I thought we were pretty clinical in the '22' and both No 9s and 10s managed the game pretty well down there.
"We didn't over-play. Once their defence was up we turned them and put pressure on their lineout, they kicked it out and we went again. The game management was pretty good tonight."
More of the same will see them home in Europe.
CONNACHT - D Leader; C Kelleher (C de Buitlear 74), T Farrell, T Daly (D Horwitz 72), M Healy; J Carty, C Blade (A Lloyd 65); P McCabe (M Burke 59), D Heffernan (capt) (T McCartney 54), D Robertson-McCoy (F Bealham 44); G Thornbury, Q Roux (U Dillane 58); P Boyle, C Fainga'a, E Masterson (C Gallagher 65)
MUNSTER - A Conway; K Earls, C Farrell, D Goggin (S Arnold 74), A Wootton (T Bleyendaal 60); J Carbery, A Mathewson (C Murray 51); J Loughman (D Kilcoyne 61), N Scannell (K O'Byrne 67), J Ryan (S Archer 40); J Kleyn, T Beirne; P O'Mahony (capt) (B Holland 65), T O'Donnell, A Botha (CJ Stander 52)
Ref - M Adamson (SRU)