Guinness Pro 12: Connacht 35 – 14 Munster

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This result has massive repercussions for the landscape of Irish rugby. It is a result that embraces positive, expansive rugby. It is a result which cements Connacht’s place in the top four of the league this season. It is a result which exposes yet again a Munster squad and management who have failed to deliver in yet another key fixture this season. It is a result where heads should roll in the Munster organization.

Make no mistake, the sin bins were a massive factor in creating the platform for Connacht to first get back into the contest and then taking a stranglehold that they never relinquished after the first quarter of this contest when Munster looked in the mood to produce a performance with two well worked tries from the elusive Simon Zebo after great work from Jack O’Donoghue and a good finish from Munster hooker Mike Sharry.

How did Connacht win this contest? They showed resilience in spades in that first quarter. Shane O’Leary start was not inspiring and on another day could have coughed up a try to Conor Murray when his kick was blocked. The near miss awoke the Connacht pack who slowly gained parity in exchanges and when serial sin bin offender James Cronin was sent to the sin bin for repeated indiscretions at scrum-time (last indiscretion was dubious), the hosts increased the tempo and pressure and Munster’s pack folded with the incessant pressure exerted with the concession of the penalty try and Billy Holland killing ball on Munster’s line with a try imminent.

The story of the game for me was the performance of Adeolokun, a winger who only a couple of seasons ago was plying his rugby trade in the lower tiers of AIL Rugby. His two tries demonstrated his ability to identify space and his pace with ball in hand is immense. It was a performance befitting a provincial derby from a player who Munster may be potentially thought was perhaps an area of interest during the contest. The opposite was the case.

The second story of the game was the immense ball running display of a certain Pacific Islander called Aki. Bundee Aki was a revelation in defensive work but his ability to carve out massive game line gains was too much for a Munster three quarters stretched to exhaustion. The statistics speak for themselves; twenty carries for 130+ meters was defining in its composition and spoke volumes on the lack of creativity from Munster’s three quarters.

The only positive for Munster on a disappointing night is that in recent weeks they have unearthed a potential solid fly-half operator in Johnny Holland. The Cork Constitution player had another good cameo despite his colleagues around him struggling for parity throughout. Holland’s conversions were expertly taken and in the tough surrounds of the Sportsground was admirable to say the least. His chief player in competition for the ten jersey would have struggled to put the ball anywhere the post. Holland has the ten jersey and it is up to Munster management to nurture the talent now long term.

Pat Lam’s influence in this Connacht setup is intoxicating inspiring. His fearless attitude to challenge both his management and playing staff throughout the season has being immense. I have met Pat Lam a number of times around Galway and the guy lives and breathes the sport; his passion for the province is immense and this season is just reward for persisting with an expansive rugby style which was ridiculed by many pundits last season when results were going south.

It is a testament to Lam and management that their player policy both from a first team and academy which is the lifeblood of any professional rugby club is reaping rewards. You only have to look at the players wearing green last night to illustrate the point. Munster born Ultan Dillane produced a stirring performance in the second row; immense  work rate and lineout performance. Denis Buckley, Tom McCartney and Finlay Bealham have being revelations this season; their enthusiasm for work in the trenches is inspiring. The fact that Rodney Ah You has not being mentioned sums it up.

Shane O’Leary to his credit recovered from a shaky start and from the moment that James Cronin was sent to the sin bin, the fly-half executed the basics which Connacht demanded well. He was ably assisted by his back row who were superb throughout. Muldoon led the unit with the passion, determination and stealth of a player who should be knocking yet again for a national team recall.

The abundance of Connacht academy on show with confidence and unerring game management accuracy was in pale contrast to Munster whose rookies were let down by a number of seasoned professionals in the ranks. The Munster academy is flat out not delivering the talent required at the club and questions need to be asked on recruitment come the off-season. Intelligent scouting and networking of underage talent across all grades is required but Munster are not identifying talent. Ultan Dillane is a prime example; there are stories why Dillane was overlooked but it is damning that a player of massive potential from Kerry was overlooked by the province.

Poor old Ian Keatley must hope that the season could end tomorrow. His cameos now off the bench are now the stuff of nightmares. His passing and game management speaks of a player bereft of confidence and his colleagues know it too delaying runs deliberately to allow Keatley to hit the easy option. Keatley and Zebo’s late error cameos summed it up perfectly. I do not blame the player; Keatley is a twelve or fifteen. His days at ten are numbered but Munster fans would be foolish to heap excessive blame on a player who has being let down by management.

Connacht’s team work versus Munster’s individual nous was a striking aspect to the league encounters this season. Connacht have an identity; game plan and they stick to the formula. The same cannot be said for Munster unfortunately. Are the men in red a team who are based on a pack performance or a team who are looking to implement an expansive style of play in the backs? It is hard to understand and points to a management team who are unclear on the strengths of their side. The players on the pitch do not execute at the standard required; their indiscipline at times is bordering on contempt.

The last point must go to the Sportsgrounds. The fans were electric and the last ten minutes of this contest remained me of when Munster were in their pomp at Thomond Park; boisterous crowd cheering and supporting every Connacht tackle and line break. Munster were now the team on the receiving end of a stirring rugby display both on and off the pitch.

The unity between Connacht players and fans was there for all to see. The same cannot be said for Munster at this time and the distinct dropping off of game attendances in Thomond Park speaks volumes. An once domineering giant (Munster) has being slayed. There is a new force in  Ireland Rugby; that force is Connacht Rugby. Kudos to all concerned.

Munster hierarchy are now in a bind and Anthony Foley’s future as head honcho again should be called into question. The team is going backwards and a crunch game against a dangerous Edinburgh next in Cork looks genuinely beyond them on the basis of the last two provincial performances.

Ensei in November looks the destination for Munster. Damning indictment of the organization and if the board continue to put their heads in the sand; European Challenge Cup will be the fill for the next couple of years.

No disrespect to Anthony Foley but it is time to go; get an outsider head coach to rid the deadwood in the squad and backroom staff and there is plenty. Munster are seriously ill and there are no quick fixes; root and branch review of how the organization organizes its affairs will only suffice now. Munster are the worse rugby province in Ireland and by a considerable distance. No score in the second half when a breeze at their backs. Time for change is now.