Munster Rugby restored much needed confidence ahead of their key European Rugby Champions Cup fixtures against Racing 92 and Castres with a bonus point win over a Connacht side who will rue the lack of points from an excellent opening period of dominance.
David Wilkinson and officiating crew have come under the spotlight in this contest by both sides. The initial opening period penalty count from Munster Rugby was excessively high as Wilkinson officiated several breakdown and offside infringements with alarming frequency from a Munster Rugby perspective. The breakdown battle never materialized, the pickiness of the officiating crew in this facet of play was a disappointing development for both sides.
Connacht Rugby without the likes of Buckley, Dillane, Marmion and Aki opened the scoring in the first minute of the contest. Jack Carty slotting home a penalty as Wilkinson had pinged Munster early doors. The visitors were taking the game to their hosts in the first quarter, inventive with ball in hand but were unable to make that decisive line break to create a try scoring opportunity.
Munster Rugby during this period were continuing to be on the wrong side of the officiating. Further penalties conceded in the breakdown zone.
Darren O’Shea had a monster game for Munster Rugby. The towering second row needed to produce a performance to show Johann van Graan and management his case for squad and first team inclusion next weekend in European Cup action. His running line for Conor Murray after Chris Farrell’s impressive line break was excellent and the powerful unit was never going to be stopped from five meters for the hosts first try.
From a position of vulnerability, Munster Rugby suddenly were 7-3 up. Connacht Rugby were now asked questions in the contest and they responded well with another penalty soon after. The breakdown again the guilty facet of play for the hosts. Farrell’s excellent tackle lost Connacht ten meters but then the thirteen was pinged for not disengaging from the tackle before entering the breakdown contest. Jack Carty duly converted the penalty to leave the minimum between the sides.
Munster Rugby though at this stage had now adapted to the officiating style of Wilkinson and it was now Connacht to feel the wrath of Wilkinson. John Muldoon adjudged to have infringed in the breakdown. 50/50 call for me, genuine contest and on another day, the player would have got the benefit of the doubt.
Before long, we will be outlawing the breakdown and the ability to steal ball in this facet of play. Rugby Union is not Rugby League but given the officiating last night, one would wonder if the breakdown is now destined for extinction.
The rejuvenated Ian Keatley slotted home the subsequent penalty and the hosts lead perhaps fortuitously 10-6 at the break. Connacht had long periods of dominance during the half but no points on the scoreboard with a stiff breeze behind them in the opening period was always going to be punished and so it proved.
Munster Rugby made the relevant adjustments at the break. Kudos to the coaching staff and players for working out a strategy to reduce the penalty count. They conceded only one more penalty in the entire second half. As CJ Stander stated post-game, if a side concedes more than ten penalties in a game, it makes life very difficult to win a contest regardless of the opposition.
Chris Farrell’s return from injury could not come at a more ideal time for Munster Rugby with the suspension of Sam Arnold. The three quarter options were becoming limited. Farrell’s ball carrying and defensive duties were on point and will be a huge asset for Munster Rugby in the European Cup games to come. Ian Keatley slotted home another penalty to make it 13-6 after Farrell won a breakdown battle (for once).
Munster Rugby with their gander up and Ian Keatley on excellent form then struck for the second try of the evening. A drubber kick from Keatley was not dealt with by Connacht Rugby. Conway got the faintest of touches to the ball to score ahead of O’Halloran. 20-6 Munster Rugby.
Cue the move of the game to kill off the contest. A solid scrum set piece, Sharp passing from Murray, Scannell, Conway to find Keith Earls in acres of space out wide to score the simplest of tries. It was inventive, it was sharp and Connacht Rugby defensively were now a tired unit. 25-6 Munster Rugby.
Local derbies against Munster and Connacht are always abrasive but sporting affairs. A key incident took place on sixty-one minutes which raises serious questions of the officiating crew and what constitutes a tip tackle.
Quinn Roux’s tackle of Keith Earls started on the ground but then Earls was lifted mid-tackle, went perpendicular and then Earls crashed to the ground without Roux protecting the player hitting the ground. A clear red card but Wilkinson and officiating crew thought otherwise. When you consider Keith Earls’ red card against Glasgow Warriors last season in ERC action, officiating consistency has to be raised.
The incident saw Roux given a yellow card. In fairness to Roux, he inquired on Earls leaving the pitch but the officiating decision at Thomond Park has opened a can of worms on tackles which are lifted and the protection of players hitting the ground by the opposition.
Wilkinson had an indifferent evening and the video analysis of this incident has to be a case study for Pro 14, ERC and World Rugby on what constitutes a red card in this instance. The inconsistencies of the decision making around this specific incident in various competition fixtures is getting worrying, time to act.
Munster Rugby finished their scoring with a quick brace of tries in the final quarter. Conor Murray benefiting from good pack advances close to the Connacht Rugby line to score from close range. The scrum half potency around the fringes seen to full effect and his game management was superb as always.
The visitors did conclude the try scoring with a sweeping move of their own just before the final whistle. Tom McCartney going over and after some excellent offloading and phase play. It was too little, too late but given the squad assembled, this result was hardly a surprise.
Connacht Rugby’s party line was that Dillane, Marmion and Aki were being saved game minutes; the focus on European Challenge Cup which is fair enough only that Connacht Rugby should secure a home quarter final this weekend when they thump a much changed Brive side in Galway next weekend. Go figure!
Munster Rugby steady the ship with a five try performance. The sluggish opening period and rapid penalty count will be a concern, further work required on the training paddock on those aspects of play. However, the emergence of O’Shea and Oliver back from injury were keynote performances.
Conor Oliver in particular was superb in his work rate, tackle count and his pace to support the ball carrier was excellent. Keatley continues to play at a high level and with indecisiveness at the backup position (Bleyendaal – injured, JJ – out of form, Johnston — rookie), the half-back must continue to deliver for the province.
Ian Keatley is my player of the season so far for the province. Yes, he has being that consistent and good, just ahead of Conway. Roll on Europe!