A HARD-FOUGHT victory for Munster against Connacht, but a deserving one.
It was never going to be an easy encounter, but just as they have done all season Munster showed immense resilience and repelled one hell of a fight from their western counterparts.
If Connacht were to have any hope of reaching this year’s Guinness Pro14 final, they simply had to win at Thomond Park and now that they have failed to do so, Munster are through to their first final since 2017.
For Connacht, this game was a do-or-die situation and despite their normal brave and spirited showing Munster just had too much firepower in their matchday 23.
They had the luxury of leaving players like Jean Kleyn, Joey Carbery, Jack O’Sullivan and World Cup winner Damian de Allende off the starting team before introducing them all at the same time with 30 minutes remaining. Not only did it give the remaining Munster players a shot of adrenaline in the arm it also very much demoralised the men in green.
From the off. Connacht showed they were not there just to make up the numbers.
Keeping Munster pinned back in their own 22 for the opening 15 minutes and scoring a nicely worked try by Matt Healy, Connacht looked very comfortable in how they were attacking and defending.
Every time a Munster player received the ball it was normally accompanied by at least two Connacht defenders who were not exactly shy about how hard they tackled.
Spearheaded by their two wing forwards Jarrad Butler and Conor Oliver, the visitors clearly had their sights set on disrupting Munster’s young half-back pairing and they certainly rattled their cages.
With Carbery back fit and looking sharp, Ben Healy needed to have a good outing and while he didn’t have a shocker, he most certainly didn’t do himself any favours by having two kicks charged down and missing two kickable penalties.
Healy who is still only 21 years of age recently put pen to paper on a one-year contract extension with Munster and this is not a very long period of time for any player who is looking to establish himself as a first-team member.
Healy is probably looking at Carbery and JJ Hanrahan who are above him in the pecking order and whether it was Munster who offered the one year or Healy who requested it, his future playing days are still very much in the balance.
Craig Casey, Healy’s scrum-half for the game also looked a bit flustered however, this was probably down to the lack of clean ball and protection that his forwards were supplying him with.
Casey who was deservingly capped for Ireland against Italy last week had to dig hard for nearly every ball at the breakdown and the Munster line-out offered him absolutely nothing positive to work with.
When you play as Casey likes to do with gusto and swiftness, it is imperative that your forwards gain the upper hand and give you a good clean supply of ball to distribute. However, when your line-out is completely outclassed and all you have to work with is scraps of untidy possession, as a scrum-half you can sometimes immerge from the battle with a less than favourable rating.
To the best of my knowledge, Munster lost eight of their own lineout throws and this is simply not acceptable at this level. If this had happened against a side whose attacking prowess was more clinical than Connacht’s, Johann van Graan would still be looking for those extra few points to assure his team's place in the final.
In the end, it took a brilliant bit of individual skill by Munster full-back Mike Haley and a late penalty by Carbery to separate the sides. You would have to say that Munster deserved their victory though, because of how they defended and made the most of the untidy ball they had to work with.
Individually Connacht probably shaded it with Jack Carty, Bundee Aki and man of the match, Gavin Thornbury stealing the plaudits of the television audience, but that won’t really bother Munster too much because their goal on the night was achieved and they are the ones who can now start to prepare for the final on March 27.
The likelihood is Leinster will await Munster in the decider.
With two more pool games to play in the competition against Benetton and the Llanelli Scarlets, van Graan must now get the balance correct between resting some players and keeping others sharp.
It would be very foolish to look at these two remaining games as meaningless ties because momentum is a key ingredient for any side who wants to win silverware.
Eleven years is way too long for a team with Munster’s pedigree to remain trophy-less and to halt this rot against Leinster would be a serious statement of intent.