Munster won out what was initially an edgy encounter against Connacht in arctic conditions at Thomond Park in what was a much-needed boost as the province heads into crucial back-to-back Champions Cup fixtures against French opposition.
In what was a very tight first half, Munster pulled away in the second 40 after four tries, which included a brace from Conor Murray, put any thoughts of a Connacht upset firmly to bed, with a final scoreline of 39-13.
In the opening minutes of the game, it was all Kieran Keane’s side as they looked to stamp their authority in a fixture which saw them pull off a famous victory two seasons ago. The first bit of positive play from the westerners came when Niyi Adeolukun beat Keith Earls on the wing to bring the play to Munster’s 22. Johann van Graan’s side were pinged at the breakdown and Jack Carty added a penalty to put the visitors 3-0 in front.
Munster looked to hit back almost immediately when CJ Stander caught out a soft fringe defence from Connacht as he picked the ball up from the base of the ruck and powered down the pitch. The Irish international kicked the ball through to the delight of the home crowd but unfortunately for those supporters, Munster were subsequently turned over just metres from the line and the chance went a begging.
Connacht looked to apply more pressure on their opponents when they tried to get their maul going close to Munster’s line but the home side were able to turn it over and relieve the pressure. Munster then got their first points and first try of the game when Darren O’Shea touched down. Munster had steadily brought play deep within the Connacht 22 and after 16 phases, Chris Farrell powered through a gap and offloaded to O’Shea who dotted down.
Jack Carty added another penalty for the away side when Chris Farrell got pinged for not releasing the player after he made a huge tackle. That brought the game back to a one-point margin before Ian Keatley grabbed another 3 points when Connacht’s discipline let them down.
Both sides were guilty of giving away possession in the opening ten minutes of the second half as unforced errors were prevalent. Munster did extend their lead when Keatley added a penalty in front of the posts when John Muldoon was pinged at the breakdown. The Connacht captain looked to had competed for the ball legally but referee David Wilkinson thought otherwise.
Munster then added further pain to Kieran Keane’s side went a grubber kick from Keatley put Tiernan O’Halloran under all sorts of pressure, the bounce of the ball made it awkward for the Connacht full-back and the onrushing Andrew Conway got the ball down before his opponent after much deliberation between the referee and the TMO.
Munster scored another two tries with 15 minutes remaining to leave the result in no doubt. First, Ian Keatley did very well to take contact and unleash Conway with the offload who passed to Keith Earls who dotted down in the corner. Just five minutes later, Conor Murray scored a typical Conor Murray try as he touched down after reaching over from the base of the ruck when the home side were on their opponent’s line. These two tries were on either side of the sin-binning of Quinn Roux, who was yellow-carded for a tip tackle on Keith Earls.
That yellow card proved costly for Connacht as Murray almost scored a carbon copy of his first try when he went over from close range with just 10 minutes remaining on the clock.
Connacht were able to get one back at the death went Tom McCartney was the beneficiary of a huge overlap as he dotted down in the corner, Craig Ronaldson added the extra two points to give some more respectability to the scoreline.
However, the last two minutes played out with Connacht in possession but they were unable to muster another score.
Munster: Simon Zebo (Sweetnam 62′), Andrew Conway, Chris Farrell (Johnston 65′), Rory Scannell, Keith Earls, Ian Keatley, Conor Murray (Williams 69′), Dave Kilcoyne (Cronin 51′), Rhys Marshall (Sherry 61′), John Ryan (Archer 51′), Jean Kleyn (Copeland 67′), Darren O’Shea, Jack O’Donoghue, Conor Oliver, CJ Stander (c).
Connacht: Tiernan O’Halloran, Niyi Adeolukun (Leader 62′), Eoin Griffin, Pita Ahki, Matt Healy, Jack Carty (Ronaldson 68′), Caolin Blade (Mitchell 68′), Peter McCabe, Tom McCartney, Conor Carey (Bealham 57′), Quinn Roux, James Cannon (Thornbury 41′), Cillian Gallagher, Jarrad Butler, John Muldoon (c) (Boyle 57′).
Referee: David Wilkinson (IRFU)