Connacht facing time out after letting Munster off the hook

Some slick movement from Connacht's backs, Kieran Marmion and Jack Carty - also vying for a return to Ireland duty -  and John Porch in the Guinness PRO 14 game against Munster at the Sportsground on Saturday evening.   
Photo:-Mike Shaughnessy

Some slick movement from Connacht's backs, Kieran Marmion and Jack Carty - also vying for a return to Ireland duty - and John Porch in the Guinness PRO 14 game against Munster at the Sportsground on Saturday evening. Photo:-Mike Shaughnessy

hree-week break from action after the French government called a halt to its teams playing in the European Cup.

Due to travel to Bristol for the return fixture against Pat Lam's men this weekend, Connacht were then to host Racing 92 at the Galway Sportsground next weekend.

While the spanner has been thrown in Champions Cup rugby, there is no doubt Connacht would welcome a week's break after a heavy schedule of PRO14 and European fare. But three weeks without a competitive game is not something Andy Friend would want, particularly with important postponed ties against Welsh outfits Dragons and Ospreys pencilled in for February 5 and 13.

Nor will it help those Connacht players, such as Jack Carty, Kieran Marmion, Dave Heffernan, Ultan Dillane and Finlay Bealham, who will want to be in top competitive form ahead of possible Six Nations selection - although that tournament also is in doubt unless organisers can assure the French extra Covid protocols are sufficient for them to travel.

It could leave elite rugby facing a shut down, but more likely continuous alterations while Covid-19 numbers continue to rage in Europe.

Connacht's Andy Friend, although delighted to still be playing rugby, says it is stressful.

"Every week you are working day by day, and it does takes its toll, and I'm speaking on behalf of everyone here at Connacht Rugby.

"It's been a long six months. Yes, we still are still playing and we love what we do, and the uncertainty is nobody's fault , but it does add stress, not just to Connacht, but every PRO14 and European team. So the quicker we can get a clarity on what the next few weeks looks like, the better for everyone.

“It’s the reality of what we’re living in at the moment, it’s tricky times. We will all look back in a few years’ time and ask how the hell we got through it. We’ll say it was bloody hard, but we got through it."

Connacht's 10-16 defeat to Munster on Saturday evening in the Sportsground was also tough to take. With high hopes of nailing a second interprovincial win, they could have, and should have, succeeded. On field decision-making was again questionable. Down 16 - 3 after 61 minutes, they secured a 78th minute try, but then spurned a golden opportunity to take full spoils with a 82nd minute penalty.

With Munster replacements Rory Scannell and Nick McCarthy both in the bin, Connacht, however, opted for a five-metre scrum before Man of the Match Tadhg Beirne once again turned poacher and ruined a real chance of victory.

Munster, on balance, were deserving of their win. But, had the boot been on the other foot, Munster's superior guile and experience would likely have prevailed.

Frustrating for Friend.

"Should have won," he says. A five metre scrum with 15 against 13 at the end of 80 minutes of football. It's very frustrating to have worked that hard, had that fight right up to the death when you should take it, but didn't. We'll need to have a look at it - a scrum - the one thing we didn't want to do.

"We were not clinical enough. We had blokes come off the page and it hurts you. You can't play as a individual against a team like Munster. You have to stick to systems and trust the systems, but for whatever reason we didn't do it tonight," says Friend,

However, Connacht's resilience and spirit remains a hugely positive trait.

"This team fights, they fight bloody hard and to stay in and get so bloody close and not finish, that is the thing that breaks you."

With one interprovincial win - a first in the RDS against Leinster - it left Connacht, second in Conference B, adrift from Munster by some 11 points in the push for a place in the final.

"It was good, bad and the ugly. The RDS was the best performance from Connacht side since I have been here. The ugly was tonight, scrappy and unpleasant. And the bad - and it takes away from an energetic and hard working Ulster side - was our second half in that game. So it has been a mixed bag, and yet again another home loss which frustrates us the most because at the minute we are winning more away than at home."

Munster' performance, as expected, was marked by physicality and an aggressive defence which restricted Connacht's best attacking play. Coupled with an unstoppable maul, it ensured Munster ultimately prevailed.

Munster coach Johann van Graan was relieved, particularly with the defensive effort at the end.

'It's an away interpro, so you take any way win you can," he says. "Really tough place to come, specially against a side high in confidence. To defend a scrum five yards from our try line with 13 men, we did really well.

"We came here to play more than we did in terms of ball in hand, but conditions were tough. Connacht are currently one of the best sides in Europe once they get inside the 22, and they put us under pressure."

On this occasion, however, Connacht's scoring rate was limited, despite some eight entries into the 22.

It was not pretty stuff and it was often scrappy. Munster, boasting some 378 internationals caps in their starting XV compared to Connacht's 58, enjoyed a dominant opening 40 minutes to lead 10-3.

Let off the hook when Connacht outhalf Jack Carty missed a third minute penalty, Munster opened the scoring six minutes later through JJ Hanrahan after Connacht were judged to have illegally stopped a maul. The result was an early yellow card for hooker Shane Delahunt - "Never seen a yellow card 25 metres out, but there's a first for everything isn't there," says Friend..

The maul provided the platform for their first try before Chris Farrell touched down, and Hanrahan added the conversion for a 10-0 lead. Despite struggling in the face of a Munster defence led by Coombs, Byrne and Stander, Connacht eventually opened with a three-pointer from Carty before the break. However Hanrahan kept Munster's scoreboard ticking over before Connacht gained momentum from a penalty to touch, but again exited their 22 with no reward.

It looked all over when Hanrahan added a 61st minute penalty, but when Rory Scannell was carded after a succession of penalties for not rolling away, Connacht took their chance with Peter Sullivan scoring their first try, and Carty's touchline conversion brought Connacht within a score. With 30 seconds on the clock, a penalty conceded gave Connacht a glimmer of light. Ultan Dillane came within five metres of scoring with a strong burst before Nick McCarthy was penalised to set up a dramatic finale. However Connacht could not make the huge advantage count after opting for a scrum.

Connach t: J Porch; B O'Donnell, S Arnold, T Daly, A Wootton; J Carty, C Blade; D Buckley, S Delahunt, F Bealham; U Dillane, Q Roux; S O'Brien, C Oliver, S Masterson. Replacements: D Heffernan for Masterson (15m ), S Masterson for Heffernan (20m ), P Boyle for O'Brien (41m ), M Burke for Buckley (48m ), D Heffernan for Delahunt (48m ), P Sullivan for O' Donnell (49m ), D Robertson-McCoy for Bealham (52m ), K Marmion for Blade and G Thornbury for Masterson (53m ).

Munster: M Haley; K Earls, C Farrell, D de Allende, S Daly; JJ Hanrahan, C Murray; J Cronin, K O'Byrne, S Archer; J Kleyn, T Beirne; G Coombes, P O'Mahoney, CJ Stander. Replacements: F Wycherley for Kleyn (15m ), N Scannell for O'Byrne and K Knox for Archer (52m ); J Wycherley for Cronin (59m ), B Healy for Hanrahan (61m ), B Holland for Coombes (64m ), R Scannell for Daly (70m ); N McCarthy for Murray (73m ).

Referee: Frank Murphy.


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