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Emphatic victory sets up mouth-watering Guinness PRO14 semi-final

(Jack O’Donoghue looked sharp on his return to action today)

Guinness PRO14 Championship:
Connacht 12, Munster 49
THIS game will be remembered for its remarkably unusual opening half. Munster appeared to be in total control after 14 minutes, Connacht were reduced to 13 players when Abraham Papali’i and Shane Delahunt were shown red cards. As the game continued in the red Munster had two players sent to the bin while Connacht pulled back a seven pointer that left just 14 points between the sides at the break.
A blitz of three converted tries early in the second half settled the result and even though Munster were by far the stronger side, Connacht showed remarkable courage, commitment and great flair to get the last score of this hard-fought encounter.
It was pressure, pressure, pressure right from the kick-off from Munster and it took them just nine minutes to go 7-0 in front. A series of penalty, lineout maul attacks saw Conor Oliver shown yellow and Munster availed of the extra forward advantage to drive over after Peter O’Mahony soared high in the lineout to set up the maul. Chris Cloete got the touchdown and JJ Hanrahan was accurate with the conversion.
Seven minutes later it was 14-0. , Abraham Papali’i had made a decent break which brought Connacht their first attacking move but they continued to be completely out-played at the breakdown. Munster drove forward, looking threatening every time they ran the ball through their threequarter line, and when they were awarded a five metre scrum there was only going to be one outcome and this time the Reds were awarded a penalty try.
Connacht showed resilience, spending the next phases deep in Munster territory but after the TMO had spent time analysing a tackle on Conor Murray, number eight in the green jersey, , Abraham Papali’i, was sent off. One would have expected Munster to kick on and get a few more tries before half time, Connacht lifted their game but never looked like breaching their opponents’ defence. Worse was to come for the Westerners when their hooker Shane Delahunt joined his number eight sitting in the stand for the rest of the game. Munster marched forward, their pack doing the heavy lifting and prop Loughman forced his way over with Hanrahan kicking the easy conversion for a 21-0 lead.
What happened from there to Frank Murphy’s eventual blow of the whistle was quite remarkable. 13-man Connacht refused to lie down. They showed tremendous courage, battling harder than ever at the breakdown and after a series of attacks close to the Munster line, Bundi Aki barged over for a try, converted by Conor Fitzgerald, almost seven minutes into injury time. Munster’s discipline comes into question during that onslaught. Both Peter O’Mahony and Tadhg Beirne were sent to the sin-bin for defensive illegalities and the scoreboard read Munster 21, Connacht 7 with both sides now down to 13 players when play resumed in the second half.
The introduction of Bundi Aki certainly changed the Connacht point of attack. The centre looked as if he was taking on the entire Munster side at times but the second half saw the Reds run in tries from Tadgh Beirne and two from Andrew Conway in a four minute blitz, all converted by JJ Hanrahan, that put the result of this game clear of any hint of a shock result. James Cronin got on the end of another Munster maul, converted by Rory Scannell to increase the lead to 49-7, at the other end Keith Earls prevented a certain try with a brilliant tackle on Bundi Aki but Johnny Murphy got over at the next phase to bring the score to 49-12 with eight minutes to go.
The result sees Munster qualify for another chance to lower the Leinster colours in the semi-final next week-end. They looked good when they were allowed to run the ball, they had some problems up front and some will say that they made it hard for themselves in that opening half. Coach van Graan will be happy. He has guided his side to where they wanted to be and next Friday night’s semi-final is a mouth-watering prospect.
Munster: Shane Daly; Andrew Conway, Chris Farrell, Damian de Allende, Keith Earls; JJ Hanrahan, Conor Murray; Jeremy Loughman, Niall Scannell, John Ryan; Fineen Wycherley, Tadhg Beirne; Peter O’Mahony (C), Chris Cloete, CJ Stander.
Replacements: Kevin O’Byrne, James Cronin, Stephen Archer, Billy Holland, Jack O’Donoghue, Craig Casey, Rory Scannell, Jack O’Sullivan.
Connacht: Tiernan O’Halloran, Colm de Buitléar, Sammy Arnold, Tom Daly, Matt Healy; Conor Fitzgerald, Caolin Blade; Paddy McAllister, Shane Delahunt, Dominic Robertson-McCoy; Niall Murray, Quinn Roux (C); Eoghan Masterson, Conor Oliver, Abraham Papali’i.
Replacements: Jonny Murphy, Conor Kenny, Matthew Burke, Ultan Dillane, Seán Masterson, Stephen Kerins, Peter Robb, Conor Dean.
Referee: Frank Murphy (IRFU)
AR1: Sean Gallagher (IRFU) AR2: Chris Busby (IRFU)
TMO: Olly Hodges (IRFU)

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