Connacht 24Munster 31
Sean Farrell reports from the Sportsground
THEY CRAMMED INTO the Sportground for this one, the Connacht faithful. 8,129 all told, and a fair few among them queued before the gate opened two hours before kick-off.
Though it ultimately ended in a bonus-point defeat, nobody sounded disappointed when the second half came to the boil. Excellent offloads, incisive line-breaks, huge collisions, contentious decisions, seven tries and Joey Carbery fist-pumps to a hostile crowd. This game was awash with moments to liven up the first weekend in January.
Carbery celebrates his try, Munster’s fourth. Source: James Crombie/INPHO
Considering the stacked team-sheet sent up the road from Limerick, a task that already had the look of an uphill ascent to it got a little steeper for Connacht in the hours before kick-off. Rather than celebrate a 150th cap, loosehead Denis Buckley was laid low by illness and so Peter McCabe and young Matthew Burke were thrust into action.
With Chris Farrell, Joey Carbery, Tadhg Beirne Peter O’Mahony and Keith Earls in harness, Munster were never going to be rattled by the crackling Galway atmosphere. Yet despite dominating early exchanges, Johann van Graan’s side found themselves behind within 10 minutes.
Back row Arno Botha ran into contact for what seemed a routine carry beyond halfway until a clever ball-targeting tackle from Tom Farrell ended with the centre haring towards the try-line with ball-in-hand while many were waiting for the ruck to form under Botha.
The 7-0 gap lasted just six minutes for the hosts, however. Munster dusted themselves down after the setback and stuck manfully to the plan until a big Chris Farrell carry made a gainline in front of the posts and from there Keith Earls raided a gap and offloaded for O’Mahony to dive over.
Carbery added the conversion and was soon taking the tee again. The brilliant Paul Boyle and Gavin Thornbury denied John Ryan from bulldozing over the try-line from close range. However, the reprieve was short-lived as Munster clinically executed off the five-metre scrum, Alby Mathewson sending Dan Goggin crashing through beside the sticks.
With a smart defence shutting off angles, a pack gaining an upper hand and a stacked bench ready to rumble on in the second half, the game looked ideally set up for Munster to dominate from there on in. This Connacht side, however, always have few flashes of brilliance up their sleeve to ensure they never bow out without a battle.
When line-breaks came for the Clan Terrace to roar on, they came thanks to either Farrell or the returning Matt Healy. Having slipped debutant Tom Daly through an early gap, late in the half the wing side-stepped Mathewson’s rush defence 10 metres inside his own territory and rapidly ate up 25 metres. There Munster seemed happy to kill the move and accept a penalty before half-time.
Jack Carty was happy to slot it between the posts to narrow the gap to 10-14 at the break. But it was after the turnaround that Connacht really got their claws into the contest.
Munster must have feared they had failed to capitalise on their dominance through the first 40 and Farrell compounded that concern as he broke down the right wing and fed Cian Kelleher a try to give Connacht the lead with the half just two minutes old.
Tom Farrell carries at Peter O’Mahony and Tadhg Beirne. Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO
The southern province were undaunted by the prospect of a momentum shift, though.
This match was more than a tale of two Farrells, but Chris was a colossus for Munster and his 48th-minute barrel through a tackle and offload to Alex Wootton paved the way for the match-tilting try.
After Wootton was snagged, Beirne barged close to the try-line and from there Mathewson flung a remarkable long pass with minimal back-lift — but more than a hint of forward – to find Goggin waiting patiently to dot down his second.