Munster show their class to see off Connacht
Man-of-the-match JJ Hanrahan kicked 14 points as streetwise Munster beat Connacht 19-14 in a gritty Guinness PRO14 top-of-the-table clash at the Sportsground.
Johann Van Graan’s men were that bit sharper in defence and attack as they extended their lead at Conference B’s summit, building crucial momentum with a 10-point surge between the 20th and 25th minutes.
A try from influential replacement Jack O’Donoghue, coupled with Hanrahan’s 100 per cent record from the tee, had Munster leading 16-9 at the break.
Connacht had their moments and Conor Fitzgerald’s third successful penalty kept them hot on the visitors’ tails.
However, it was a frustrating night for the westerners as replacement Jack Carty’s try, in response to Hanrahan’s fourth penalty, came too late as Munster ground out a deserved derby victory.
Finlay Bealham’s penalty win at an early scrum prompted a brief scuffle, the intensity spilling over at times from both sides.
Hanrahan kicked Munster ahead in the eighth minute after good pressure from Gavin Coombes on Caolin Blade.
Quick hands allowed Eoin McKeon and Tom Daly to flood forward for Connacht on either wing, and although Chris Cloete pinched a textbook turnover, Fitzgerald got the hosts off the mark in the 17th minute.
Hanrahan’s second penalty – punishing a high tackle – gave Munster a 6-3 lead.
A significant 10-point gap was opened up in the 24th minute, Fitzgerald leaking a lineout from a peach of a kick by his opposite number Hanrahan.
Munster moved infield from the lineout, and armed with a penalty advantage, O’Donoghue struck for his seven-pointer with timely support from Kevin O’Byrne.
Fitzgerald and Hanrahan swapped further penalties, with Bealham pinged at the scrum this time, before Munster almost broke through again off a slick midfield move.
Dave Heffernan’s crucial tackle on Calvin Nash forced a knock-on and allowed the westerners to clear.
A straightforward penalty from Fitzgerald rewarded Connacht’s renewed efforts in attack just before half-time, but those points were quickly handed back.
Heffernan’s crooked lineout allowed Munster to build early pressure on the resumption and Hanrahan duly fired over his fourth penalty for a 19-9 advantage.
Munster continued to win the collisions and the kicking battle, and even when there was a momentum shift, Connacht spoiled it with a maul infringement.
They were also guilty of going off their feet after winger Kyle Godwin’s promising break and kick ahead had Chris Farrell under huge pressure near the Munster line.
Connacht’s accuracy returned eight minutes from the end, as a much-improved lineout maul set up Carty to dummy through and touch down near the right corner despite Hanrahan’s last-ditch tackle.
The try-scorer’s conversion veered to the left and wide, and Munster’s expert carrying and ball retention staved off the hosts’ late fightback.