Munster this evening suffered a comprehensive defeat at the hands of Connacht in Thomond Park after the Western province outmuscled their southern counterparts in mauling their way to a four try 28-12 victory. The game also saw Francis Saili and Shane Monahan make their debuts in the red of Munster.
Things began positively for the Munster men, most notably when long-term injury returnee Mike Sherry – making his first appearance since November 2013 – scored in the opening three minutes off the back of a textbook Munster maul.
Any notions that the Munster maul would become the dominant force in this pre-season encounter were soon quelled when Ireland international Kieran Marmion twice capitalised on Connacht’s own highly effective maul.
Unphased by Munster’s early strike, Connacht soon applied pressure, winning the breakdown battle and making yards with each collision. When Munster eventually infringed (in off their feet), in keeping with the nature of pre-season, Jack Carty opted to kick down the line instead of slotting an easy three pointer.
It proved to be a wise decision as Connacht unleashed the first of their try scoring mauls, one of four for which Munster had no answer in this game. Marmion peeled from the back to score in the right corner and a touchline conversion from Carty made it a full seven point return on 15 minutes.
Pat Lam’s charges were now in the ascendancy and ten minutes later, space out wide and a good line from Ultan Dillane brought Connacht back into Munster’s 22. A potential try saving tackle from academy full-back David Johnston halted the Connacht second-row’s advance but sustained pressure again saw Munster infringe.
Unsurprisingly the Westerners opted for a kick to touch and scrum-half Marmion was on hand to secure his second try off the subsequent line-out maul.
Another impressive touchline conversion from Carty saw his side push their advantage out to nine points before Munster found the clinical edge that had been alluding them since the opening five minutes of the game.
Testament to the Connacht defence was the countless phases that Munster had to go through from left to right and back again in wearing down their opposition before captain CJ Stander broke from short range to touch down alongside the posts.
Ian Keatley added the extras and brought Munster back to within two points on 35 minutes, a score they would gladly have taken heading for the dressing rooms, but Connacht had other ideas.
From a five metre line-out, Connacht’s maul continued to serve them well, this time Nepia Fox-Matamua putting the icing on the forwards’ Trojan work in touching down for Connacht’s third try.
Carty made it three from three in the kicking stakes leaving Munster with a lot to do in the second 40. 21-12 at the interval.
Experimenting with a number of different combinations, Foley made full use of his extended bench across the second half, featuring talent from the senior, academy and sub-academy ranks. Recent Ireland U20 international Stephen Fitzgerald made his first senior appearance of the current pre-season campaign, while from the senior squad, new signings Francis Saili and the sprightly Shane Monahan (who started) made their debuts for the province.
However the same problems persisted for Munster in the second half – failing to get parity at the breakdown, a lack of penetration and handling errors, and another Connacht try all adding to Munster’s frustrations.
Proving just as potent in the second half, Connacht’s maul, and Muster’s illegal attempt to stop it saw referee David Wilkinson award the men in green a penalty try on 49 minutes, gifting Craig Ronaldson the easiest of conversions in front of the posts.
That would be the final score of the game. Even with Connacht down to 14 men – when Bundee Aki saw yellow for no arms in the tackle – things just never clicked for Anthony Foley’s side with the Western province running out deserved 28-12 winners.
Speaking after the game, Foley commented, “We came up against a very good Connacht side that took their opportunities and we didn’t respond. We knew when we took the fixture it was going to be a tough contest, which is why we wanted it, but I’m disappointed in how we performed.
“We can clutch onto the fact that it was guys’ first game, but with the amount of work we’ve done we’d have expected a much better performance. However, we weren’t allowed perform by a very good Connacht side.
“We lost the physical battle and didn’t control the breakdown. That takes your momentum away and from there it’s very hard to play.
“Tonight will teach us that we need to control possession and keep momentum and pace on the ball.”