Munster in the driving seat as Connacht seek to upset the odds

Relief all round:  Bundee Aki, helped by Jonny Murphy, Niall Murray and Paul Boyle,  scores a last-minue try against Benetton at Stadio Comunale di Monigo in Treviso, Italy, to secure a vital win in the Guinness PRO14.  Photo: Daniele Resini/Sportsfile

Relief all round: Bundee Aki, helped by Jonny Murphy, Niall Murray and Paul Boyle, scores a last-minue try against Benetton at Stadio Comunale di Monigo in Treviso, Italy, to secure a vital win in the Guinness PRO14. Photo: Daniele Resini/Sportsfile

Connacht's hopes of arresting Munster's runaway lead of the Guinness PRO14 conference B will be decided tomorrow night in Thomond Park (7.35pm ).

Still nine points behind Munster, Connacht are in a desperate bid to hunt them down and achieve a rare sixth away win on the bounce. To do so Andy Friend's men will need to produce nothing short of their best in what is always a physical encounter to keep their slim hopes of overtaking Munster alive.

Johann van Graan's Munster have suffered just two losses this season, and are hot favourites to add a 12th win this season. Last time out in the Sportsgound Munster ground out a 16-10 courtesy of a rolling maul for which Connacht simply had no answer. However, they showed tremendous tenacity to create a winning chance, but that was spurned in the dying minutes. Since then Connacht's on-field decision making has come under scrutiny, so too their maul defence, thus turning opportunities into points with clinical efficiency will be key.

Connacht accept Munster are very much in the driving seat.

"We are under no illusions," says Connacht's forward coach Jimmy Duffy. "Munster are flying, so for us, it's about staying in the fight for as long as we need to.

"One key thing for us is our accuracy. We really have to capitalise on opportunities as they arise. You won't get too many chances to fire a shot, and when you do, you have to be efficient and you have to accumulate points," he says.

"Munster are top of the conference for a very good reason, so we need to stay focused on that task this week."

Connacht welcomed the return this week of Bundee Aki, Dave Heffernan and Ultan Dillane from the Ireland camp which will be a big boost - just as Munster have Craig Casey, Andrew Conway, Shane Daly and Chris Farrell available. It adds another dimension to the game which will be robustly contested.

Duffy says Connacht are readying themselves for Munster's traditionally strong maul and scrum, which provided the killer blow in Galway.

"They have a massive pride in their scum and maul. It is a weapon for them, and it's something they go to quite a lot. When you do something a lot and you are good at it, you'd be be foolish to move away from it, so it's something we are keenly aware of and we have to negate it as best we can.

However, he says, Connacht will continue to play their high tempo brand of rugby and keeping the ball alive.

"I think we showed that the last day and when we can amplify it and turn it up, we are efficient and we can score tries, so very much around that is maximising what we can, but we will have to be clinical."

Also key will be Connacht's discipline against a side that loves to ruffle feathers and often play on the edge. High energy and line speed to shut down Munster are key, but Connacht's leading players will need to ensure everyone is on the same page.

Last weekend Connacht eked out last-minute 19-17 victory against Benetton in Treviso. Certainly it was a blow for Benetton who had looked like securing their first win of the season until Connacht produced a rare clinical line-out and maul with Bundee Aki touching down in the right corner. It was enough to take the four points, maintain their second spot in Conference B, and stretch their lead over Scarlets by 11 points.

Connacht had gone into the break 14-7 down, having struggled to impose themselves in a scrappy first half. A single try was all they could offer, and that had come on 17 minutes from prop Finlay Bealham, converted by Conor Fitzgerald. However the hosts capitalised when hooker Shane Delahunt was sent to the bin after a tip tackle on fullback Jayden Hayward, and they bagged two tries in five minutes. Although Connacht responded with a Paddy McAllister try, converted by Fitzgerald, Benetton continued to dominate the second half, but could only add a penalty with five minutes remaining.

Connacht mustered a last stand and two penalties to touch provided the lifeline - Oisin Dowling set up the maul and Bundee Aki touched down to secure a hard-fought win.

Connacht: T O'Halloran, P Sullivan, T Daly, B Aki, A Wootton, C Fitzgerald, K Marmion, P McAllister, S Delahunt, F Bealham, O Dowling, G Thornbury, E Masterson, J Butler ©, P Boyle. Replacements, D Buckley for McAllister and D Robertson-McCoy for Bealham (both 55 ), C Blade for Marmion (64 ), J Porch for Sullivan (58 ), N Murray for Thornbury and J Murphy for Delahunt (both 65 ), S Masterson for E Masterson (68 ).

 

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