Munster too strong for Connacht to set up play-off with Benetton but Conor Murray emerges as injury doubt
Munster 27 Connacht 14
Before a ball was kicked at a cold and blustery Thomond Park Munster had a fair idea, thanks to events in the Italian derby, that they would have to go through a play-off next weekend if they were to get to a Pro 14 semi-final.
Benetton's bonus point win over Zebre would tear the backside out of Edinburgh's assault on Glasgow, so all that remained was for a well tooled-up Munster side to control what they could control: a depleted Connacht selection.
Loosely control rather than subdue might be the most appropriate description of their effort. It was fractious, and referee Frank Murphy was lenient enough at times – in so doing he was making some extra work for himself – and at its end Munster had sorted their date with Benetton back here on Saturday at 3pm. The winner will be away to Leinster in the semi-final, while the winner of Ulster v Connacht in Kingspan, also on Saturday, will travel to Glasgow in the other semi.
It remains to be seen if Conor Murray is fit for the weekend. He was withdrawn late in the warn-up for an unspecified injury. Munster also lost Dan Goggin shortly before the end after a clash of heads with teammate Rhys Marshall. Connacht seemed to have fewer issues on that front, and despite the defeat will travel to Belfast in confidence. You'd wonder if they settled for kicked points sooner during their long periods of pressure in the second half would they have got closer. They knew their date before setting foot on the field – but never played that way.
It was a decent game, where Munster had the wind blowing into the Mayorstone end in the first half, a period in which they were short on territory and possession – not massively so – but well ahead on the scoreboard. The main effect of the wind on Connacht's approach meant that punting for position wasn't an option, and kicking at goal was a tricky business. You could say this suited their debutant outhalf Conor Dean. Like his old man he's better with ball in hand than off the tee, so two of his three efforts on goal in the first half failed – the first badly. Otherwise he looked at home.
At the break it was 17-7, with the damage being done by the home side on the run-in. The highlight of the period however was the non-try from Andrew Conway, a calamity that occurred on 27 minutes. Connacht were 7-3 ahead at the time thanks to a try from Finlay Balham – he showed great flexibility in getting over from close range after sustained Connacht pressure, converted by Dean – when Tiernan O'Halloran threw a hopeful pass behind his back as Connacht were trying to exit their 22.
Conway latched onto to it and cantered towards the posts to score. Top marks to wing Stephen Fitzgerald who read his opposite number's switched off radar and chased him down to slap the ball out of his hands. It will have eased Conway's embarrassment that Munster got over four minutes later through man of the match Tadhg Beirne. He benefitted from a take-up not unlike the Michael Rhodes try for Saracens last weekend, and then put a lovely step on Niyi Adeolokun to score under the crossbar.
Munster struck again six minutes later when Conway made space out wide for Mike Haley and Peter O'Mahony to combine well down the touchline. The flanker complete the two versus one for the full back to score.
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So that put a better complexion on things for the home side. But they spent a lot of the second half at the wrong end of the field. Significantly the wind eased a bit though, so when they got within shooting range Tyler Bleyendaal didn't have to be asked twice. He nailed a good shot from 35 metres to make it 20-7 on 55 minutes, but thereafter they were mostly battling to keep their line intact. That's when Connacht, with an improving scrum helped by the departure of Jeremy Loughman for something obscure, might have changed tack.
They had to wait until 71 minutes before Eoin McKeon got over after a goal-line battle. That, with Dean's conversion, cut the deficit to six points which rattled the crowd of roughly 15,000. So JJ Hanrahan's try on 75 minutes was well received. There was more grunt thereafter, but nothing that would change the picture.
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)
Referee: F Murphy (IRFU)