Sunday 18 August 2019

Munster need to sharpen up as they sweat over fitness of Conor Murray

Munster 27 Connacht 14

Conor Murray of Munster leaves the field with Munster lead physiotherapist Damien Mordan
Conor Murray of Munster leaves the field with Munster lead physiotherapist Damien Mordan
Missed opportunity: Connacht’s Stephen Fitzgerald dispossesses Andrew Conway just as the Munster man was about to touch the ball down for a try. Photo: Sportsfile
Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

Saturday night in Limerick was all about getting the box ticked for both Munster and Connacht. And both managed to complete the exercise.

The winners nailed on their fixture with Benetton, at the same venue on Saturday - the chances of a direct route to the semi-final were always pretty slim - while for the losers they always knew they were Belfast bound: it was only a matter of what shape they would be in after this contest. Not bad at all, as it happens.

A weakened Connacht side closed the gap with Munster to six points deep into the last quarter and were giving the home side enough problems to make the crowd uneasy. With a clean bill of health on the injury front they can't wait to get to the Kingspan.

As for Munster, they expect to have Conor Murray sorted after he was withdrawn on the last play of the warm-up after getting a bang in the neck. Given his history, you could be forgiven for reaching for the panic button.

Johann van Graan comes across like he wouldn't know where to find that. He says Murray might have featured but was withdrawn as a precaution. And that Dan Goggin, who went off after clashing heads with Rhys Marshall, could have come back on if required.

"He (Murray) literally got a knock with the last breakdown of the warm-up - we got the medical team involved and we made a decision not to play him. He could possibly have played, but we decided to err on the side of caution and we'll give some more info on Monday. It's just very stiff at this stage," he said.

Stephen Fitzgerald of Connacht is tackled by Stephen Archer and Neil Cronin of Munster. Photo: Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile
Stephen Fitzgerald of Connacht is tackled by Stephen Archer and Neil Cronin of Munster. Photo: Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile

So were Munster at times, though getting the insurance score when they were down to 14 men - Jeremy Loughman was binned at a scrum not long after he came on in the second-half - was a tonic for them.

Listening to the two sides of the story afterwards it was like Connacht hadn't lost. They didn't make out like they had won, but they came through safely on the injury front, and the spin up to Belfast on Saturday is no longer the dread it once was for Connacht teams.

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"The important thing is we know we can win up there," Andy Friend said. "And we know we've played them twice this year and beaten them twice this year.

"Now it is knockout football; it is another four months into the season since we last played them so they will be a different rugby side. But we're a different rugby side. You're always looking for the little mental edges if you can, but we certainly know we can go up there and win because we've done that. They'll be a tough nut to crack, but it's more about what we do and making sure we deliver on the things we want to do."

The scrum leaves Munster with a heap to work on given the brute force Benetton will bring to all aspects of their forward play.

It's a bit of a cliché to say the Italians trade in the physical, but Benetton really set out to batter teams, and are very good at it.

Niall Scannell accepts Munster will be victims if they don't sort themselves out. Equally, he's glad they still have jobs to be done.

"If you look around the league there are some brilliant teams who don't have rugby after this weekend, so we're proud of where we are and it's testament to what we've done for the whole season and not just the last few weeks," he said.

"There are games we've got over the line earlier in the season that have put us in this position. We'll be ready to go for Treviso at the weekend."

In that case Andrew Conway will be wearing wing mirrors next weekend. He had a truly horrendous try-surrender when, having clocked off on a run-in, Stephen Fitzgerald caught him and dislodged the ball. The best bit was that it had come from his own interception of a woeful decision by Tiernan O'Halloran to pass wide and blind at the same time.

Referee Frank Murphy ordering the scrum. Photo: Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile
Referee Frank Murphy ordering the scrum. Photo: Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile

The damage was mitigated by man of the match Tadhg Beirne stepping Niyi Adeolokun a few minutes later for a fine try, followed then by Mike Haley, contributing to Munster's half-time lead of 17-7.

They were into the wind after the break and spent vast tracts of that second-half trying to beat off Connacht's attacks. Eventually they succumbed to Eoin McKeon.

If they are to secure a tilt at Leinster in the semis they'll need to sharpen up a bit.

Munster - M Haley; A Conway, C Farrell (S Arnold 68), D Goggin (C Farrell 73), C Nash; T Bleyendaal (JJ Hanrahan 68), N Cronin (C Casey 76); D Kilcoyne (J Loughman 53; yc 69-79), N Scannell (R Marshall 68), S Archer (J Ryan 53), J Kleyn (B Holand 68), T Beirne, P O'Mahony (capt), CJ Stander, C Cloete (A Botha 68; D Kilcoyne 69; A Botha 79)

Connacht - T O'Halloran (D Leader 72); N Adeolokun, B Aki (E Griffin 59), T Daly, S Fitzgerald; C Dean, K Marmion (C Blade 64); M Burke (PMcCabe 49), T McCartney (S Delahunt 45), F Bealham (C Carey 49), J Maksymiw, J Cannon (E Masterson 57), E McKeon, R Copeland, J Butler (P Boyle 64)

Ref - F Murphy (IRFU)

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