Van Graan's Munster seal Pro14 final spot after edging past Connacht

The southern province will have a chance to end their 10-year trophy drought later this month.

Munster 20

Connacht 17

MUNSTER WILL HAVE a chance to end their decade-long trophy drought later this month after Johann van Graan’s side sealed their place in the Guinness Pro14 final with a home victory over Connacht.

The western province pushed Munster all the way and will have regrets about letting their chance slip, but van Graan’s men had enough quality to edge the contest and were greatly helped by a stunning solo try from fullback Mike Haley in the second half. 

chris-farrell-gavin-coombes-andrew-conway-and-shane-daly-celebrate-with-mike-haley Munster celebrate Mike Haley's brilliant solo score. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Munster will be back in the Pro14 final for the first time since 2017 and van Graan will be delighted it has happened with two regular-season games to spare.

It was a fiery, entertaining encounter at Thomond Park and Munster only moved into the lead for the first time in the second half, but the result means they are heading for a final for the first time under van Graan. 

Connacht deservedly led 10-7 at the break and managed Bundee Aki’s second-half yellow card very well, holding Munster scoreless in that 10-minute window. Munster lost Chris Cloete to the sin bin in the final quarter but managed to edge in front in a nervy endgame, with Joey Carbery slotting his two shots at goal after being introduced from the bench for his second appearance since recovering from a long-term ankle injury.

Gavin Thornbury was superb in the second row for Connacht, blocking down kicks, stealing lineouts, and making breakdown turnovers, while Ultan Dillane also did damage against what was a poor Munster lineout.

Tom Daly was strong in midfield for Connacht too as they did plenty of good things but ultimately the westerners came up just short in a game they will feel they could and should have won. Instead, Munster march on to the Pro14 final.

gavin-thornbury-in-a-line-out Gavin Thornbury was superb for Connacht. Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

Connacht made a superb start as Thornbury stole a Munster lineout, allowing Daly to kick into touch down into the home side’s 22, where Thornbury then blocked down a Ben Healy kick inside Munster’s in-goal area to hand Connacht a five-metre scrum.

The westerners were lethal from the set-piece as Munster held two defenders in the shortside to cover John Porch, but Connacht instead played to their left-hand side as Daly pulled a pass back to Carty, with Bundee Aki’s run checking Munster wing Andrew Conway as he shot up and in, giving Carty time to float an excellent pass wide for Matt Healy to score.

Carty converted for a 7-0 lead with only five minutes gone and though Munster had more issues exiting their half, a superb ball-and-all tackle by Shane Daly on Porch under a Craig Casey box kick finally helped them to grab territory as Connacht went off their feet scrambling back to the breakdown and Munster kicked into the left corner.

Connacht muscled up, though, as they first held Fineen Wycherley up over their tryline, and then Bundee Aki produced an excellent turnover penalty after the visiting pack repelled Munster’s maul.

But Munster were soon back within five metres and after hooker Niall Scannell was held up on the first thrust, they scored off the ensuing close-range scrum as Chris Farrell, Casey, and Chris Cloete carried before the impressive James Cronin powered over with a latch from Stephen Archer.

james-cronin-celebrates-after-scoring-a-try James Cronin scored for Munster in the opening half. Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

Ben Healy converted for 7-7 but Connacht were back in front before the half-hour mark as Carty slotted a penalty when Jack O’Donoghue was pinged or not rolling away post-tackle.

Thornbury continued to cause hassle for Munster with another blockdown, lineout steal, and even a breakdown turnover penalty, but the home side had a last-minute chance to level the game just before the break after a late tackle from Conor Oliver on Casey, only for Healy’s 42-metre effort to slip wide.

The out-half did helped Munster to cap a strong start to the second half, however, as he popped over three points off the tee when Connacht were penalised for not rolling away in their own 22. 

There was another blow for Connacht in the 45th minute as Aki was sin-binned for a deliberate knock-on just inside the Munster half, referee Chris Busby and TMO Joy Neville felt he had denied a linebreak by batting the ball down.

Connacht managed the sin-bin period well, though, as Ultan Dillane made a lineout steal and then Thornbury produced another breakdown turnover penalty. A crooked lineout throw from Niall Scannell followed on what was a very bad night for that set-piece.

bundee-aki-celebrates-a-turn-over Bundee Aki was sin binned in the second half. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Just as Aki returned, Connacht conceded another penalty but Healy was wide again from over 40 metres out in what was his last act of the game.

Van Graan sent on Carbery, de Allende, Jean Kleyn, and Kevin O’Byrne all at once but it was a man who had started who made a sudden and stunning impact to take Munster in front for the first time coming towards the final quarter.

Fullback Mike Haley gathered the high ball on halfway, fended Dave Heffernan and then dinked a delightful chip over Tiernan O’Halloran with his weaker left foot and sprinted past him to gather again on the bounce to finish.

Carbery converted for 17-10 but Connacht responded superbly as Carty nudged a lovely grubber behind the Connacht defence for Healy to claim and then the out-half was on hand to take an offload on the next phase before he was stopped five metres out. Cloete went straight off his feet looking for a rescuing turnover and was shown yellow by Busby.

The western province made no mistake against the 14 men from the five-metre scrum as number eight Paul Boyle powered through de Allende’s tackle attempt to finish, Carty converting for 17-17 with 15 minutes left. 

joey-carbery-kicks-a-penalty Carbery came on for Munster again in the second half. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

But Carbery was able to nudge Munster back in front with a 69th-minute penalty when Busby felt Aki had played Casey and then handled the ball in a ruck. The frustration for Aki was that he felt he had been given approval to scoop the ball up.

And Munster were able to see out their win as Cloete, back from the bin, came up with a big turnover penalty to see them into the Connacht half for the closing minutes.

Munster scorers:

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Tries: James Cronin, Mike Haley

Conversions: Ben Healy [1 from 1], Joey Carbery [1 from 1]

Penalties: Ben Healy [1 from 2], Joey Carbery [1 from 1]

Connacht scorers:

Tries: Matt Healy, Paul Boyle

Conversions: Jack Carty [2 from 2]

Penalties: Jack Carty [1 from 1]

MUNSTER: Mike Haley; Andrew Conway, Chris Farrell, Rory Scannell (Damien de Allende ’57), Shane Daly; Ben Healy (Joey Carbery ’57), Craig Casey; James Cronin (Jeremy Loughman ’69), Niall Scannell (Kevin O’Byrne ’57), Stephen Archer (John Ryan ’59); Fineen Wycherley (Jean Kleyn ’57), Billy Holland (captain); Jack O’Donoghue (Jack O’Sullivan ’73), Chris Cloete (yellow card ’62), Gavin Coombes 

Replacements: Nick McCarthy

CONNACHT: Tiernan O’Halloran (Alex Wootton ’59); John Porch, Tom Daly, Bundee Aki (yellow card ’45), Matt Healy; Jack Carty, Caolin Blade (Kieran Marmion ’69); Denis Buckley, Dave Heffernan (Shane Delahunt ’69), Finlay Bealham (Jack Aungier ’59); Ultan Dillane, Gavin Thornbury; Jarrad Butler (captain), Conor Oliver, Paul Boyle (Eoghan Masterson ’69).

Replacements: Matthew BurkeNiall Murray, Sean O’Brien.

Referee: Chris Busby [IRFU].

Bernard Jackman, Murray Kinsella and Gavan Casey chat deteriorating player-referee relationships, perception vs reality with Ireland, initiation songs, a potential ‘home’ Lions tour, and this weekend’s interpros:

Source: The42 Rugby Weekly/SoundCloud

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Murray Kinsella  / Reports from Thomond Park

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