Connacht have two weeks to recover from their New Year’s Day “arm wrestle” with Munster before facing another similar challenge as European fare resumes.
First up are Leicester in the return Heineken Champions Cup fixture at the Sportsground on January 15, followed by Connacht's trip to Paris to take on Stade Francais.
It will be a welcome two weeks' respite from competitive action for Connacht, and also an enjoyable one, in which Andy Friend will be priming his team for an assault on Europe in their bid to become the first Connacht team to qualify from the pool stages in the Champions Cup.
The 10-8 victory over Munster will certainly have put a deserved pep in their step when they returned to training this week. Their stated aim has been to play fast paced rugby, but against Munster they were forced to adapt, and as their game matures, they added another dimension to their game against a Munster outfit that had won eight of their previous 10 meetings.
Understandably Friend was chuffed Connacht were able to "eke out a win playing ugly footy". It ensured their growing playing repertoire is paying dividends, having shared the honours between the two sides in their last four competitive meetings. It also put Connacht on equal championship points with Munster, who admittedly has two games in hand. Interestingly, another side to be making giant strides is Benetton, and all three sit on the same number of points.
The New Year's Day fare on offer was not the prettiest, but having lost controversially by 20-18 in Thomond Park in October, Saturday’s win could be much more for Connacht, says Friend.
“To me that could be season defining for us. A, I didn’t think we played our best footy and left chances our there; B, some of that defence, energy and heart they showed was probably the best I’ve seen. The players are really pleased as they deserve to be and we are really proud of them.”
Connacht, however, will not be getting too carried away. Munster are something of a team in transition with their coach Johan van Graan leaving to take up a position with Bath, and they were missing some key players. On the night they offered little in attack, and instead were forced to make 115 tackles, compared with Connacht’s 72, and conceded 17 penalties for Connacht's 12.
Van Graan's men had taken a 3-8 lead when gifted a try. Andrew Conway was quickest to react after Mike Healy successfully charged down Mack Hansen’s attempted clearance. And when Connacht’s Oisin Dowling was binned for an offside offence, a series of penalties had the home side on the back foot. But it was Connacht who came up trumps. Forcing a turnover, Munster’s opportunity was lost - the biggest moment in the game, said van Graan.
Connacht's back row of Jarrad Butler, Conor Oliver and man of the match Cian Prendergast were relentless - the entire pack standing solid in an area where Munster were expected to prevail, while behind the scrum Kieran Marmion was in superb form.
“Brilliant all season,” says Friend of the 29-years-old scrumhalf. “One of the standout players. He was in everything - his speed at the breakdown was excellent, his service was very good, he was sniping when needed, he kicked when he needed to kick, defensively he put his body in the right areas, and his game control and calmness were really impressive when needed.”
It was scrappy and fractious - a half-time argy-bargy when exiting the field resulting in Connacht’s hooker Shane Delahunt and Healy receiving yellow cards - and later Chris Farrell was lucky it was only yellow with a high tackle on replacement Tom Farrell. By then Conor Fitzgerald had replaced Carty with a cut mouth, and ably stepped up, continuing to keep Munster pinned back with superb kicking. Capitalising on the game’s fourth yellow card, Connacht delivered the game’s killer blow. From a line-out, Ultan Dillane secured possession, and from a huge surge, helped by Bundee Aki’s additional presence, the home side secured the winning try, scored by the Lions centre. Fitzgerald nailed the touchline kick which put Connacht in front after 59 minutes. They then had the wherewithal to close out the game, keeping Munster pinned inside their half.
Yellow Cards: Connacht, Dowling (37 ), Delahunt (40 ); Munster, Healy (40 ), Farrell (56 ).
Connacht: T O'Halloran; J Porch, S Arnold, B Aki, M Hansen; J Carty (capt ), K Marmion; M Burke, S Delahunt, F Bealham; U Dillane, O Dowling; C Prendergast, C Oliver, J Butler.Replacements: C Fitzgerald for Carty (39m ), T Farrell for John Porch (54 ), D Robertson-McCoy for Bealham (63 ), E Masterson for Dillane (64 ), J Murphy for Delahunt (65 ), A Papali'i for Prendergast (69 ), T Tuimauga for Burke (72 ).
Munster: M Haley; A Conway, C Farrell, D de Allende, S Daly; B Healy, C Casey; D Kilcoyne, N Scannell, S Archer; J Kleyn, F Wycherley; J O'Donoghue (capt ), A Kendellen, G Coombes.Replacements: T Ahern for J Kleyn (44m ), J Loughman for Kilcoyne, K Knox for Archer, and DBarron for Scannell (all 58 ), J Daly for Kendellen (63 ), N Cronin for Casey (67 ).
Referee: Chris Busby (IRFU ).