MUNSTER 42 CONNACHT 20
Munster scored five tries in the final 25 minutes to record a bonus-point 42-20 Guinness PRO12 victory over Connacht at a wet and windy Thomond Park to take a step closer to securing a play-off spot.
An error-strewn first half ended 7-3 in the home side’s favour, Billy Holland dotting down from close range in response to Jack Carty’s second-minute penalty.
A second Carty penalty made it a one-point game before Munster went up through the gears on the hour mark, setting up tries for Duncan Casey, Simon Zebo and Andrew Smith with captain Denis Hurley and Keith Earls also touching down in the dying minutes.
The avalanche of scores took the losing bonus point away from Connacht, who gained some consolation in the form of converted efforts from replacements Miah Nikora and Shane O’Leary.
Injuries have been troubling Connacht of late, particularly in midfield, and illness forced Craig Ronaldson out of the line-up with 22-year-old centre Conor Finn coming in for his first PRO12 start.
The visitors were first on the scoreboard, Denis Buckley forcing a ruck penalty and Carty swung over a fine kick from out wide on the right.
Munster were quick to threaten, though, off their forward platform. Man-of-the-match CJ Stander carried strongly off the back of a scrum and then quick ruck ball saw lock Holland dive over just to the right of the posts.
The 12th-minute try was converted by Ian Keatley before Connacht, with their front row to the fore, pressed from a couple of lineout mauls and Munster, showing more of a threat out wide, got Zebo and Earls involved entering the second quarter.
The game’s tempo lifted in the 33rd minute as Tiernan O’Halloran broke dangerously over halfway and a turnover allowed Felix Jones to launch a kick chase which Matt Healy did well to cover.
But with the rain coming down and ruck turnovers frustrating both sides – livewire prop Buckley was particularly adept at winning breakdown decisions - there were no further scoring chances before the interval, apart from a missed 50-metre penalty from Carty.
Another Buckley-won turnover launched Connacht forward on the restart with a gilt-edged opportunity missed when Carty straightened with numbers wide on the left. Some consolation came in the form of a scrum penalty and a second three-pointer.
Keatley pushed a kickable penalty wide and the stop-start nature of the game continued until Munster found their rhythm from a forwards-dominated attack in the 55th minute. Stander and Tommy O’Donnell made the hard yards initially and then a well-worked maul put replacement hooker Casey over to the left of the posts.
Munster soon built the necessary pressure again, keeping it tight in the visitors’ 22 before Zebo did really well to hold on to a loose Hurley pass and stretch over in the left corner, under pressure from Darragh Leader.
TMO Kevin Beggs confirmed the grounding and Keatley curled over the difficult conversion. Connacht were not finished, however, as Earls failed to deal with John Cooney’s kick and the onrushing Nikora took advantage of a favourable bounce to run in a try which he converted himself.
With their lead cut to 21-13, Munster went the direct route once more, chipping away at the Connacht defence before Australian centre Smith crashed over from close in. JJ Hanrahan converted and also added the extras to a breakaway score from Hurley, who was put clean through by Earls after John Muldoon coughed up possession.
Ronan O’Mahony was the guilty party when he fumbled a Nikora kick in his 22 and the well-positioned O’Leary pounced to score for the westerners. But Munster had the final say as a chip put Earls through for their sixth try of the night.