Connacht head to Lions' den looking to back up earlier demolition

Soft night in Galway — Luke O'Dea and Paddy Butler, Munster, in action against Mike McCarthy, left, Robbie Henshaw and Denis Buckley, Connacht on Friday night last. Photo: Diarmuid Greene, Sportsfile

Soft night in Galway — Luke O'Dea and Paddy Butler, Munster, in action against Mike McCarthy, left, Robbie Henshaw and Denis Buckley, Connacht on Friday night last. Photo: Diarmuid Greene, Sportsfile

After a rare four day break from action to celebrate Christmas, Connacht head into the Lions' den looking to claim a double interprovincial win over Leinster on Saturday.

Both sides are smarting after their pre-Christmas RaboDirect Pro 12 defeats, although, of the two outfits, Connacht will be feeling the hurt more, knowing they let a golden opportunity slip over Munster. Few can forget Connacht's complete demolition over the Heineken Cup champions in September at the Sportsground, but the big question is: Can they do it again?

Throughout his coaching reign Coach Eric Elwood has reinforced Connacht's need to maintain consistency home and away, and he has gone a long way to achieving that. However a losing bonus point is not what Connacht want on Saturday. Connacht have not won away to Leinster since 2002 when they carved out a 26 - 23 win at Donnybrook - and that victory was Connacht's only win away to an Irish province in the competition's history - a statistic that needs to change. It will be difficult given that Leinster are one of only two sides who have a 100 per cent home record this season - the other being unbeaten Ulster.

Elwood will not be looking to make too many changes to his starting XV nor would he want to stray too much from the side that beat Leinster three months ago - giving them an opportunity to back it up away from home. On that occasion Connacht bagged five tries as the team showed a greater passion that reaped rewards. Elwood will be looking for more of the same again, knowing there will be a backlash from Joe Schmidt's team.

"We are under no illusion we have another big challenge on Saturday. We had a good win against them earlier in the year and we are expecting a backlash up there," says Elwood.

" They are after losing the last couple of games so it's another difficult outing - nothing new there."

Although Connacht have already claimed Leinster's scalp this year, they could only muster a losing bonus point over Munster last Saturday as the men in red edged the contest by 16 - 12.

A penalty try awarded by referee Dudley Phillips and two try-saving tackles from the visitors was the difference between the sides as Rob Penney's outfit jumped into third place, consigning Leinster to fifth. Now the two Christmas interprovincial winners in the scrum contest will meet, while Leinster prepare to avenge Connacht's earlier Sportsground demolition.

Connacht were left to rue missed opportunities - for never was there a better time to post only a third win over the Munster men since 1976, and coach Eric Elwood said this failure proved costly.

"The lesson is you have to able to take your chances. In tight ball games, decisions go for you or against you, but when you get opportunities to score, you have to take them. Munster were clinical when they got the opportunity and we had another couple of opportunities, but we didn't take them."

In contrast Munster's Rob Penny was delighted to have escaped "a potential banana skin" with a changed line-up.

" We got the four points which is worthy reward for their effort. I am just as proud of our boys to secure the four points coming into the Christmas, and to have a couple of days to sit back and relax a little bit knowing we have secured the points in a tough battle."

All but three of those points came in the first half after the home side had opened the scoring with a penalty from Parks after 10 minutes, while Munster's first points from outhalf Ian Keatley came from a concerted attack on the Connacht line before Connacht hooker Jason Harris-Wright was pinged for hands in the ruck.

After Parks potted a 22m penalty whenTommy O'Donnell was pinged at the breakdown, they should have extended the lead when Fetu Vainikolo broke from half way after a breakdown in the Munster midfield. Keatley, however, had the pace to chase him all the way, forcing the Tongan international into touch at the corner flag.

The turning point came minutes later when Harris-Wright was binned for a second offence at the breakdown, and Munster took the opportunity to send Connacht's scrum reeling. Referee Phillips immediately signalled a penalty try - a la Ulster's try over Leinster, and the simple conversion and two penalties both sides of the break gave Munster a 16 - 6 lead.

" It was not a penalty try - that's my view on it," said Elwood. " I don't know where that came from to be honest, like a couple of other decisions, and it was the turning point in the game. Things like that can turn games, particularly tight ball games, derby games. It's a big seven points."

Connacht went on to dominate the second half and started to claw back the lead with a Parks' penalty after 45 minutes, while a break from No 8 Eoin McKeon paved the way for Parks to slot a drop goal, edging Connacht within four points. However a missed penalty after James Downey was carded for a high tackle on Mike McCarthy, a strong defensive line-out from Munster, and Keatley's positional kicking, kept Connacht at bay until George Naoupu's final effort from Eoin Griffin cross-field chip. Veteran Peter Stringer did enough with a defensive slide which showed from the TMO's replay that Naoupu's leg was in touch as the ball went to ground, and with it the opportunity to claim a second interprovincial scalp this season.

Yellow cards: Connacht, Jason Harris-Wright 36m; Munster, James Downey 63m.

Connacht: R Henshaw; T O'Halloran, D Poolman, D McSharry, F Vainikolo; D Parks, K Marmion ; B Wilkinson, J Harris-Wright, N White; G Naoupu, M McCarthy; A Browne, J O'Connor, E McKeon. Replacements, M Jarvis for O'Halloran (25m ), D Buckley for Wilkinson (47m ), M Swift for Browne (50m ), E Reynecke for Harris-Wright (65m ),R Loughney for White (65m ), E Griffin for Vainikolo (66m ), P O'Donohoe for Marmion (66m ), E Grace for O'Connor (71m ).

Munster: D Hurley; L O'Dea, C Laulala, J Downey, J Murphy; I Keatley, P Stringer; D Kilcoyne, M Sherry, S Archer; D O'Callaghan, B Holland; P Butler, T O'Donnell, J Coughlan. Replacements, S Dougall for Coughlan (67m ), W du Preez for Kilcoyne and BJ Botha for Archer (69m ), D Barnes for Downey (72m ), JJ Hanrahan for O'Dea (76m ).

Referee: Dudley Phillips (IRFU ).


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