Connacht = Champions Cup

Champions Cup rugby was the seasonal goal for Connacht. They can now tick it off.

For the first time in the history of the European campaign, Connacht have qualified on their own merit for this elite competition.

It is a huge achievement for the province which until last season could only qualify by finishing above one of the other provinces. But the change to meritocracy in the Pro 12 has provided Connacht with real incentive, and they have revelled in the challenge under Pat Lam. Nor can Connacht forget the IRFU's decision to give financial parity to the province, it is now reaping the benefits.

Last season Connacht lost out on Champions Cup rugby after a seventh place-play-off against Gloucester; this year they have rubber-stamped their place with two games still to play.

It ensures Connacht could now crown their season with a semi-final and a final - a bonus, yes - but it would very much be a deserved reward - there is no dispute Connacht have been the team of this season's Pro 12.

On Saturday in the Galway Sportsground they confirmed their superiority with a 35-14 win over Munster - yet another milestone as the double over Munster was completed this season for the first time.

Historically Munster, like the other provinces, have loved nothing better than to keep Connacht in their place, but on this occasion they were unable to quell Connacht's thirst for attacking rugby, skilful application, and a growing mental strength.

“This team is really growing and maturing as individuals and as a group,” said coach Pat Lam. "We talked about the mental application to not switch off, to put the foot on the throat there. Even at the end, with five minutes to go the game was won. We turned the ball over, we weren’t going to give up and you could see the body language on the guys.

“I’m extremely proud. The big goal was to get Champions Cup and it’s just such a massive, massive achievement for Connacht to get there. That’s ticked off now and last week I said one game, we’ve done that.

"There’s a few sore bodies, we have to regroup. The challenge is to go to Treviso, where everyone expects us to win, and show we’re real contenders by the way we play. If we do that, we guarantee ourselves a semi-final and then we come back here and I’m imagining that’s going to be massive [against Glasgow]."

In a season of highlights, Saturday's victory over fellow province Munster was right up there - the first back-to-back, the match that secured Champions Cup rugby, and, importantly, it was at home for the sell-out 7800 faithful to savour.

“I’m really pleased for Connacht people,” said Lam,"I am pleased for Eric Elwood. He’s an example, he’s so proud, he’s a reflection of all those who deserve this, what the boys are doing.

“When you see a crowd like that and the atmosphere, but it’s not just tonight, you see the Connacht gear everywhere now."

It should have come as little surprise that Connacht's attacking prowess would be able to condemn Munster to the qualification scrap which previously has been Connacht's domain. It took some time before Connacht swung into gear - Munster's opening showing hunger with a 14-6 lead courtesy of tries from Simon Zebo and Mike Sherry.

However Connacht's dominance at the scrum manifested itself early with outhalf Shane O'Leary kicking a three-pointer before adding a second minutes later when Munster were penalised at the breakdown. However Anthony Foley's side capitalised with a penalty to touch with Sherry touching down from the ensuing drive, with Johnny Holland's conversion putting the visitors 14-6 ahead. Incredibly Munster never scored again.

If Connacht's scrum was dominant throughout and put Munster under pressure, the experienced hands of Grenoble-bound Ali Muldowney and John Muldoon stepped up once again alongside Academy's Sean O'Brien, and all had a significant impact on the game.

But the loss of a player to the sin-bin was demonstrated when Munster lost both prop James Cronin and Billy Holland to the sin bin. Player of the match Bundee Aki capitalised from broken play, setting up possession inside the 22 before prop Finlay Bealham offloaded to Niyi Adeolokun who finished with aplomb. O'Leary added the extras for Connacht to close the gap to 13-14 before striking just before half time - using their extra men to win a penalty try for a 20-14 lead.

Connacht continued to play heads-up rugby and nothing could dent their ambition. Putting pressure on Munster, Adeolokun capitalised with the third try. Despite Zebo's best attempt to hack the loose ball, Adeolokun gathered and dived over with the TMO confirming.

Behind 25-14 Munster should have closed the gap, but Saili lost the ball diving over the line, and with it any chance of a comeback. Instead Connacht held sway, Bundee Aki continuing to find gaps, Marmion sniping, Dillane showing his power, and Bealham bagging try No 4, his first in a Connacht jersey. It was more than enough to send the Clan Stand wild when O'Leary nailed Munster's coffin firmer with a late penalty.

Connacht's tally from the previous four games against Munster is 13 championship points - three wins and one try bonus point. Consider the 24 games before that - just 14 points. Incredible.

CONNACHT: Robbie Henshaw; Niyi Adeolokun, Bundee Aki (Fionn Carr 68 ), Peter Robb (Jack Carty 74 ), Matt Healy; Shane O’Leary, Kieran Marmion (John Cooney 67 ); Denis Buckley (Ronan Loughney 74 ), Tom McCartney (Jason Harris-Wright 74 ), Finlay Bealham (JP Cooney 68 ); Ultan Dillane, Aly Muldowney (Andrew Browne 64 ); Sean O’Brien (James Connolly 72 ), Eoin McKeon, John Muldoon (capt )

MUNSTER: Simon Zebo; Darren Sweetnam (Andrew Conway 55 ), Francis Saili, Rory Scannell, Keith Earls; Johnny Holland (Ian Keatley 65 ), Conor Murray; James Cronin (YC 33 ) (Dave Kilcoyne 55 ), Mike Sherry (Niall Scannell 55 ), Stephen Archer (John Ryan 69 ); Donnacha Ryan (Jordan Coghlan 69 ), Billy Holland (YC 40 ); CJ Stander (capt ), Tommy O’Donnell, Jack O’Donoghue (Dave Kilcoyne 39 to 43 ) (Robin Copeland 56 ).

Referee: Ben Whitehouse [WRU].



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