MUNSTER strengthened their claims for a top four play-off place in the RaboDirect PRO12 when securing a hard-earned 16-12 victory over Connacht in miserable wet and windy conditions at the Sportsground, Galway on Saturday night.
Third-placed Munster maintained their record of only losing once against their interprovincial rivals in the professional era thanks largely to a 10-point scoring spree when their hosts had hooker Jason Harris-Wright in the sin-bin shortly before half-time.
Munster, minus several international players, including Ronan O’Gara, Keith Earls, Conor Murray, Donnacha Ryan and Doug Howlett, had to withstand a strong second half rally from Eric Elwood side’s before recording the win which saw them move up one place to third in a congested table.
Dan Parks got the home side off to a good start after ten minutes after good work from Mike McCarthy in the lineout set up a rolling maul for the hosts which earned a penalty that the fly-half made.
However Munster were on level terms six minutes later when the excellent Ian Keatley converted a penalty.
Parks had another opportunity at three points on 23 minutes - one that he took.
It looked as if the hosts were then destined to score the first try of the game as Fetu’u Vainikolo intercepted a Johne Murphy pass and streaked clear but Keatley had the pace to catch and drag the Tongan out of play.
Then late on in the first half, Harris-Wright was sent to the bin for not releasing under pressure and, with a man missing in the scrum, Connacht were reeling and conceded a penalty try.
And taking further advantage of the extra man, Keatley managed to snatch a penalty with the half’s last action from halfway, giving his side a 13-6 advantage.
It didn’t get any better for the hosts after half-time either as Keatley kicked a further penalty against his former team.
Parks responded however as Donncha O’Callaghan was penalised for not rolling away to bring his side within a converted try just five minutes into the second half.
And the Australian-born Scottish fly-half continued to dominate proceedings when he followed up with a drop goal from 25 yards out. Connacht were now trailing by just four.
It was then Munster’s turn to have a spell down to 14 men when James Downey received a yellow for a high tackle on McCarthy but Parks importantly missed the resulting penalty.
Connacht were now heaping pressure on their opponents. Finding themselves ten metres short of the line the ball was spread to George Naoupu whose attempt at touching down was referred to the TMO.
But upon review Peter Stringer’s last-ditch dive seemed to have put off the big second row who had slid out into touch before grounding the ball.
With two minutes to play Munster conceded a penalty for offside and, with three points no good to them, Connacht took a quick tap and searched for the decisive score.
However, Munster managed to force a crucial turnover and held on for a precious victory.
SCORERS – Connacht: Dan Parks three pens, one drop goal. Munster: pen try, Ian Keatley three pens, one con.
CONNACHT – Robbie Henshaw; Tiernan O’Halloran, Danie Poolman, Dave McSharry, Fetu’u Vainikolo; Dan Parks, Kieran Marmion; Brett Wilkinson, Jason Harris-White (Capt); George Naoupu, Mike McCarthy; Andrew Browne, Johnny O’Connor, Eoin McKeon. Replacements: Ronan Loughney for White (temp 6-16 mins) , Matthew Jarvis for O’Halloran (25 mins), Ethienne Reynecke for O’Connor (temp 36-46 mins), Denis Buckley for Wilkinson (47 mins), Michael Swift for Browne (51 mins), Ronan Loughney for White, Ethienne Reynecke for Harris-Wright (65 mins), Paul O’Donohoe for Marmion , Eoghan Griffin for Vainikolo (both 67 mins), Eoghan Grace for O’Connor (72 mins).
MUNSTER – Denis Hurley; Johne Murphy, Casey Laulala, James Downey, Luke O’Dea; Ian Keatley, Peter Stringer; Dave Kilcoyne, Mike Sherry, Stephen Archer; Donncha O’Callaghan, Billy Holland; Paddy Butler, Tommy O’Donnell, James Coughlan (Capt). Replacements: Sean Dougall for Coughlan (66 mins), BJ Botha for Archer, Wian du Preez for Kilcoyne (both 69 mins), Danny Barnes for Downey (75 mins), JJ Hanrahan for O’Dea (76 mins)
REFEREE – Dudley Phillips (IRFU)