Munster 27 Connacht 14
Sean McMahon reporting from Thomond Park
Munster set up a Guinness PRO14 quarter-final clash with Benetton after a three tries saw them emerge victorious over Connacht at Thomond Park.
A try apiece from Tadhg Beirne and Mike Haley in the first half had Munster in front at halftime with Finlay Bealham crossing for the visitors in the opening 40 minutes.
Andy Friend’s side looked to launch a comeback in the second half and it was on the cards when Eoin McKeon crossed for Connacht’s second try with less than 10 minutes remaining.
With Munster down to 14-men thanks to a yellow card to replacement loosehead Jeremy Loughman, things were looking shaky for the men in red but a lovely passage of play which saw some superb offloads from the home side eventually saw JJ Hanrahan cross under the posts to ensure his side saw out the regular season with a win.
Glasgow Warriors’ win over Edinburgh meant they secured a home semi-final regardless of what Munster could produce in Thomond Park so Johann van Graan’s side will await the visit of Benetton to Limerick next Saturday.
Munster began the game the brightest in the opening minutes but after a promising break from Calvin Nash, Kieran Marmion produced an excellent turnover to relieve the pressure for his side.
The visitors had the first opportunity to open the scoring when after a long passage of play, which Munster were defending relatively comfortably, Chris Cloete encroached offside. Referee Frank Murphy initially adjudged that Chris Cloete was entitled to take the ball from Kieran Marmion but changed his decision soon after as Munster attempted to break up the field.
However, debutant Conor Dean missed his attempt at goal for three points and Munster got off the hook.
Munster eventually broke the deadlock at the midway point of the first half when Connacht were pinged for offside. Tyler Bleyendaal opted for the posts and he was successful with his kick to give his side a 3-0 lead.
At this stage, Andy Friend’s side began to exert some pressure.
Kieran Marmion took a quick-tap penalty and almost went over the line but for a last-ditch tackle and some excellent work on the deck from Cloete to turn the ball over. Munster relieved the pressure with a kick but Connacht came roaring back as a series of strong carries resulted in Finlay Bealham crashing over under the posts.
Munster looked to have retaken the lead just minutes later when Andrew Conway intercepted the ball and had a clear run for the try line.
The Munster winger was about to ground the ball under the posts until former Munster winger Stephen Fitzgerald slapped the ball out of his hand before he could ground it.
Munster did get their try soon after when Neil Cronin, who came into the team at the expense of Conor Murray who pulled out during the warmup, laid on a flat pass to an onrushing Tadhg Beirne. The former Scarlets man burst through the Connacht defence before stepping around Niyi Adeolokun to touch down under the posts. Bleyendaal converted to give Munster a 10-7 lead.
Connacht looked to hit back but they were thwarted by an excellent turnover from Cronin and this gave Munster some good field position to launch another attack which led to their second try.
The ball was moved out wide to Conway who got around the fringe defender. The winger offloaded to Peter O’Mahony and the Munster captain then drew in the last defender before unleashing the supporting Haley who had an easy run-in.
Just before halftime, Connacht had an opportunity to cut the deficit when Munster infringed at the scrum but Dean’s effort at the posts drifted wide as Haley kicked the ball into touch as the home side went in at the break with a 17-7 lead.
Accidental offside from Munster gave Connacht some ideal field position at the beginning of the second half but they were eventually able to turn the ball over and clear their line.
Shane Delahunt’s first involvement as he replaced Tom McCartney was to throw into a defensive lineout but Beirne was able to steal the ball to give Munster a promising attacking platform.
A series of carries from Munster saw them go just inches from the line but a knock on gave Connacht an opportunity to clear and they won a scrum penalty aided by their replacement props Peter McCabe and Conor Carey.
A deliberate knock-on from Bundee Aki provided Munster with an opportunity to kick at goal and Bleyendaal obliged to extend Munster’s lead to 20-7.
The game boiled over on a few occasions up until this point and another flashpoint occurred when O’Mahony pulled Eoin McKeon to the ground. The Munster captain was penalised for dangerous play but in typical fashion, he stole a Connacht lineout just metres from the line to make up for it.
Connacht’s determination to claw back this match was impressive and they were rewarded for their efforts when a series of successful scrums eventually saw replacement Munster loosehead Jeremy Loughman go to the sin bin.
The pressure eventually told when McKeon barreled over from close range and Dean’s conversion saw Munster’s lead cut to just six points with less than 10 minutes remaining.
Despite the 14-men, Munster produced their best passage of play with minutes remaining when a series of offloads from the men in red eventually culminated in replacement out-half JJ Hanrahan crossing the line under the posts for his side’s third try.
Connacht came very close to getting a third try at the death but Munster held on as they now look forward to a home quarter-final with Benetton at Thomond Park next Saturday.
Munster: Mike Haley, Andrew Conway, Chris Farrell (Arnold 68′), Dan Goggin, Calvin Nash, Tyler Bleyendaal, Neil Cronin, Dave Kilcoyne (Loughman 53′), Niall Scannell (Marshall 68′), Stephen Archer (Ryan 53′), Jean Kleyn (Holland 68′) , Tadhg Beirne, Peter O’Mahony, Chris Cloete (Botha 68′ (Kilcoyne 69′)), CJ Stander.
Replacements: Rhys Marshall, Jeremey Loughman, John Ryan, Billy Holland, Arno Botha, Craig Casey, JJ Hanrahan, Sammy Arnold.
Connacht: Tiernan O’Halloran (Leader 72′), Niyi Adeolokun, Bundee Aki (Griffin 59′), Tom Daly, Stephen Fitzgerald, Conor Dean, Kieran Marmion (Blade 64′), Matthew Burke (McCabe 49′), Tom McCartney (Delahunt 45′), Finlay Bealham (Carey 49′), Joe Maksymiw, James Cannon (Masterson 57′), Eoin McKeon, Jarrad Butler (c) (Boyle 64′), Robin Copeland.
Replacements: Shane Delahunt, Peter McCabe, Conor Carey, Eoghan Masterson, Paul Boyle, Caolin Blade, Eoin Griffin, Darragh Leader.