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Connacht end with a whimper as 7-try Munster roar to Pro12 summit

Connacht’s defence could not hold up to a hungry Munster onslaught.

Image: Bryan Keane/INPHO

Munster 50

Connacht 14

Sean Farrell reports from Thomond Park

AT TIMES MUNSTER looked to have taken some of the very best elements of Connacht’s thrilling attack as they staked a claim to succeed them as champions and finished top of the final Guinness Pro12 table.

A relentlessly hungry defence and four tries  - from Keith Earls, Jack O’Donoghue, Andrew Conway and James Cronin – within 43 minutes saw them earn a bonus point win to edge Leinster into second place.

With a three point gap to make up before the start of play, Munster went into today’s final round of fixtures knowing five points would leave Leinster needing a result in the Kingspan Stadium to keep hold of top spot. Ulster’s win, coupled with Scarlets Welsh derby victory, means Rassie Erasmus’ men will face fourth-place Ospreys in the tournament semi-final in Limerick on 20 May. Leinster will meet Scarlets a day earlier.

With the Premiership also playing out its 22nd and final round of fixtures this afternoon, Northampton Saints were forced to settle for seventh place and so they are penciled in to meet Connacht in the Champions Cup play-off. However, Gloucester can still earn that place if they manager to beat Stade Francais in next weekend’s Challenge Cup final.

From the off, this match was a tale of two defences: Munster’s linespeed intensity suffocating Connacht attacks and forcing them into frustrating backward steps. When it was Connacht’s turn without the ball, the hosts had little trouble making yards. Hooker Rhys Marshall set alarm bells ringing as he lumbered through a midfield chasm. But the lesson had not been learned as, in the seventh minute, Dan Goggin scorched through a gap outside the 22 and fed Keith Earls a score under the posts.

From there, Munster were more than happy to rest on their defensive prowess, conceding long spells of possession, but rarely allowing the visitors out of their half.

Cronin forced a penalty for Keatley to make the gap 10 points and the prop then made up for an earlier forward pass (which called back a second Earls touchdown) by unleashing a charging O’Donoghue into the corner.

Connacht showed only brief flashes of their attacking potential, some bright moments from Cian Kelleher and Danie Poolman in deep areas, but even their closest brush with a score in the first half showed that the bounces were going Munster’s way: a pin-point Jack Carty cross-field kick found Poolman, but the pill hopped off his chest and into the grateful arms of Alex Wootton.

The young wing would soon give the game a much better highlight for the reel though, storming onto a Conway pass before delivering a sublime off load to Keatley who sent Conway into the right corner for a sensational try. Even a mis-hit conversion managed to sneak over despite a brush with the near post to leave Munster with a commanding 24 – 0 half-time advantage.

MunsterÕs Andrew Conway scores a try Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

It took just three minutes after the restart for the 19,567 recorded attendance to cheer a bonus point, Cronin this time benefiting from a precision prop pass courtesy of Stephen Archer to cross the whitewash.

Though Connacht would soon avoid the ignominy of being zeroed thanks to another fine Carty cross-field kick held and planted down by Kelleher, the return of Lions scrum-half Conor Murray after two months out with injury signaled that Munster had more to come if needed.

It didn’t take long for the renewal of the Murray-Bleyendaal axis to yield a score, Conway skating in for his second just a minute later.

Jack Carty and Ian Keatley Source: James Crombie/INPHO

If Munster were delving into the Connacht bag of tricks, then the Westerners certainly borrowed some solid Munster prescription, trusting the maul to deliver a try for Naulia Dawai just after the hour. The game was being grasped by that familiar end-of-season feel with space opening up, though Goggin and Marnitz Beshoff weren’t to be accused of taking the foot off the pedal as they collided for a sickening clash of heads that gifted Fracnis Saili a sixth Munster try.

Munster still have some big hurdles to clear if they are to succeed the western province as Pro12 champions, but this was a real statement of intent from a team that craves a piece of silverware to  cap a season that can never be forgotten.

Scorers

Munster

Tries: K Earls, J O’Donoghue, A Conway (2), J Cronin, F Saili, C Oliver

Conversions: I Keatley (6/7),

Penalties: I Keatley (1/1)

Connacht

Tries: C Kelleher,  N Dawai

Conversions: J Carty (2/2)

Munster: Andrew Conway, Alex Wootton (Tyler Bleyendaal ’45), Jaco Taute (Francis Saili ’58), Dan Goggin, Keith Earls; Ian Keatley, Angus Lloyd (Conor Murray ’52); James Cronin (Dave Kilcoyne ’58), Rhys Marshall (Niall Scannell ’58), Stephen Archer (John Ryan ’18); Darren O’Shea (Peter O’Mahony ’58), Billy Holland; Jean Deysel (Tommy O’Donnell ’64), Conor Oliver, Jack O’Donoghue.

Connacht: Tiernan O’Halloran (Darragh Leader ’70); Danie Poolman,Tom Farrell, Craig Ronaldson, Cian Kelleher, Jack Carty (Marnitz Boshoff ’66), Kieran Marmion (John Cooney ’70): Denis Buckley (JP Cooney ’59), Shane Delahunt (Dave Heffernan ’62), Conor Carey (Finlay Bealham ’44),; Quinn Roux (Naulia Dawai ’52), Andrew Browne; Eoin McKeon, James Connolly (Sean O’Brien ’52), John Muldoon.

Referee: David Wilkinson (IRFU)

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