Bonus point boosts mood as Connacht prepare for assault on Fortress Ulster
Connacht 14 Munster 19
There was a country mile on the happiness index between Andy Friend and Johann van Graan in Galway on Saturday night.
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The Connacht coach was expressing relief that from a game they planned on winning at least they snaffled a losing bonus point. Van Graan, meanwhile, was trying to keep the smile off his face. Connacht had been poor; Munster, on lots of fronts, were very good.
Their respective moods had been shaped by round two of the Christmas interpros next weekend. If in Limerick over the next few days you find the seat pulled from under you then it will have been requisitioned for use at Thomond Park for the visit of Leinster. High flying, freewheeling Leinster. The place will be jammed.
And an increasingly potent Munster combination will have, among others, the services of Joey Carbery coming off the bench, easing them out of the night sweats they have endured over finding fit bodies at outhalf.
The drive to Belfast is one that Connacht tend to make in trepidation. Fourteen months ago they bridged a gap going back to 1960 when their forwards dominated the home eight for a fine win. More recently they have been struggling for domestic bliss, getting a tonking from Leinster last month before Munster arrived on Saturday to give them some more hurry-up.
"We got together as a group on Monday afternoon," Van Graan said. "We as a group said that you have to back your performances up after Europe.
"We had two massive weeks against Saracens, two big battles and the team know how good Connacht are here. They haven't lost here for a very long time and even some of the top European teams have come second here and we knew that we needed to play well and we prepared really well. All credit to the playing group.
"We put them under pressure. I thought we put a lot of pressure on their lineout. We did one or two things different defensively which I thought put them under pressure."
Moreover, the next wave of players in red landed on the right beach. Shane Daly exploded onto a ball in the second half looking like he would score without breaking stride. He didn't, but that wasn't his fault.
Having already passed the 50 games mark for Munster Dan Goggin is hardly a novice but still he's next generation compared to the Murrays and O'Mahonys. He looked good alongside the influential Chris Farrell.
And speaking of Murray, the first starting slot for Craig Casey couldn't have gone much better for a player whose game management and basic skills are real assets. All round, Munster got their aggression and accuracy to a T.
"There are moments in big games where you need to be able to take your opportunities and take the points because it means so much," Ultan Dillane said. "But, as I said, we released pressure time and time again whether it was a set-piece issue or open play with unforced errors. It cost us greatly in the end."
Munster didn't. Their drive for a try for Jack O'Donoghue on 25 minutes was the perfect illustration of what Dillane was talking about. And it was key in carrying Munster to a half time lead of 16-9 where JJ Hanrahan and Conor Fitzgerald had been knocking over all the points.
The second half had hardly started when Connacht announced there would be no quick turnaround. Munster gave them the opportunity to get some territory and control but via another botched lineout they handed it back, unused. So, the men in red advanced into the scoring zone where Hanrahan picked off another three points. It became increasingly heated but a try from Jack Carty, who did very well off the bench, was the best Connacht could manage - securing the bonus point for them.
"In the context of the group we knew that if we didn't win tonight we'd go back to number two and we want to stay on top - we want to win this pool," Van Graan said. "It's such a long way to go if you think the play-offs are in June but this was a huge game in the context of the season."
To have done it with 18 players unavailable was a huge boost for the group. CJ Stander, answering the call again, but due a rest now, was the father figure alongside Billy Holland whose lineout leading was on the money.
"For me it's been exciting to train with them, and captain them as a team," Stander said of the young crew on duty. "They gave me energy this week and picked all of us up. They've really pushed the envelope. It's been a great week and I really enjoyed it."
More good news for Munster came in the successful return of Dave Kilcoyne post-World Cup and Jeremy Loughman coming off the bench. South African Keynan Knox didn't look too shabby either coming on at tight head and mullering the Connacht scrum on one occasion. So they are well set for Leinster. And Connacht?
"We'd love to be that team that upsets their (Ulster's) fortress next weekend," Dillane said. "We're going to try and enjoy Christmas, but hopefully we're going to give them a good game as well."
He didn't sound too upbeat.
Connacht: T O'Halloran (S Fitzgerald 55); J Porch, T Daly, B Aki, K Godwin; C Fitzgerald (J Carty 60), C Blade (S Kerins 73); D Buckley (C Kenny 71), D Heffernan (S Delahunt 59), F Bealham (D Robertson-McCoy 59), U Dillane, Q Roux (capt) (J Maksymiw 72), E Masterson (R Copeland 61), E McKeon, P Boyle
Munster: S Daly (S Arnold 59); C Nash, C Farrell, D Goggin, L Coombes; JJ Hanrahan, C Casey (N Cronin 64); D Kilcoyne (J Loughman 56), K O'Byrne, S Archer (K Knox 64), J Kleyn (F Wycherley 71), B Holland, G Coombes (JO'Donogue 10), CJ Stander (capt), C Cloete
Referee: A Brace (IRFU).