Connacht end epic year on low note as Munster prove too strong
Connacht 9 Munster 16
It never rains but it pours. In Galway when it rains, it always pours. It was like the old days in the Sportsground but that was half the problem for Connacht. Another defeat sees them lose more ground with the gang ahead of them hoping to play Champions Cup rugby next season; Munster, despite a mish-mash of a team, had enough in them to win and stretch their lead at the head of Pro12 affairs.
Munster should have finished with 14 men after their second late yellow but played on with 15; after the Wasps dénouement, few can complain, possibly, about the letter of the law. They only know Murphy's Law at the moment.
The conditions of the game never altered but the circumstances did, wildly, on the hour with the teams level at 6-6 and the hosts more anxious about that state of affairs than the visitors.
With a five-metre lineout, Connacht fancied their chances, but another scoring opportunity went a-begging and within seconds they were defending a five-metre lineout. They couldn't and Rhys Marshall dotted down.
Jack O'Donoghue tackles Connacht's Jack Heenan. Photo Diarmuid Greene
Keatley, unerring from the boot on a field he knows so well, added the conversion and a subsequent dropped goal and, even though they finished with 14 men - Dave Kilcoyne taking the rap for his team's poor scrum - the men in red held on.
Munster had started well, too.
There was some neat interplay from the forwards, Billy Holland offloading neatly to Jean Kleyn before Dave Foley almost made it over the line; playing with an advantage, Ian Keatley was content to nab an early three-pointer.
The Munster out-half was in familiar surroundings, of course; almost too familiar a few moments later when Connacht almost stole in for what would have been a quite bizarre try.
As Munster tried to clear from the base of a scrum, Duncan Williams was charged down and Marmion might have won the race to the line had James Cronin not effected a subtle tug on his jersey. In any event, Keatley was at home but suddenly he turned off the lights; as he waited for the ball to run dead, Marmion almost nipped in to touch down.
Luckily, Keatley's unwitting boot prevented the ultimate punishment.
Connacht grew into the game and dominated the territory as their choice of prevailing weather conditions dictated and their domination of the scrum was heartening.
Jack Carty spurned a 40-metre penalty but, from slightly further out after a second scrum penalty, he finally levelled matters in the 32nd matter, just as O'Brien was brought in for another injury, this time to Nepia Fox-Matamua.
But dropped balls and dropped chances have been the story of the season for Connacht, who desperately needed to win this one to stay in touch with any Champions Cup ambitions.
Just being level didn't seem to be adequate given the conditions and, after a Munster maul was illegally trespassed, Keatley arrowed a perfect one-iron into the fangs of the squall to ensure that his side thieved the half-time honours.
He had a chance to extend the lead after the break when Connacht messed up their own lineout but the Dubliner's long-range effort fell short.
Despite a change in the Munster front-row, a third scrum penalty in the 51st minute allowed Carty to level a second time - 6-6 - minor compensation after being clattered moments earlier by Rhys Marshall as his side were stealthily making ground in the 22.
Despite a creaking lineout, Connacht were much more direct; they couldn't maximise their chances though and another disappeared when they were camped on the Munster whitewash from a five-metre lineout, Denis Buckley panicking and Tom McCartney knocking on.
As the ball sprung on the other side, Ian Keatley cross-kicked and Andrew Conway countered; from halfway Duncan Williams kicked and suddenly Connacht were defending a five-metre drive.
They couldn't, Rhys Marshall plopping upon a puddle; Keatley hammered a conversion from way out to the left as the eerie silence echoed throughout the stunned and soaking stalwarts. It seemed like the turning point and, despite a late Kilcoyne yellow card and Carty penalty, it was. A sudden momentum shift that could define Connacht's season.
Scorers - Connacht: Carty 3 pens. Munster: Marshall try, Keatley 2 pens, drop-goal, con.
Connacht: T O'Halloran; N Adeolokun, R Parata, P Robb, M Healy; J Carty, K Marmion (C Blade 70); D Buckley (JP Cooney 77), T McCartney (D Heffernan 59), F Bealham (J Andress 71), Q Roux (N Dawai 60), J Cannon, N Fox-Matamua (S O'Brien 29), J Heenan (L Stevenson 73), J Muldoon.
Munster: A Conway; R O'Mahony, F Saili, D Goggin, K Earls; I Keatley, D Williams; J Cronin (D Kilcoyne 54), R Marshall, S Archer (T Du Toit 49); J Kleyn, D Foley (C Oliver 71); B Holland (capt), T O'Donnell (R Copeland 71), J O'Donoghue (J Cronin 72).
Referee: D Phillips (IRFU)