It was a long time coming but no-one in green begrudged their history this afternoon, as Connacht turned in a huge second half to go 19-10 up against Munster with eight minutes on the clock.
Munster’s response was swift and clinical, a concerted assault on the Connacht line which eventually yielded a tryline breakthrough, albeit wide out to close the gap to four (19-15) with three minutes left. The margin favoured the west coasters as Grainne Crabtree called fulltime in near darkness.
From kickoff, it seemed one-way traffic in the hosts’s favour, albeit peppered with frustration and handling errors. Munster however scored first 13 minutes in through livewire winger Laura O’Mahoney (converted from 12m right of the upright by Edel Murphy) after a protracted period of possession. Niamh Kavanagh, Chloe Pearse and Ciara Griffin the chief carriers.
Murphy extended the scoreline with a 29m penalty from in front, nine minutes shy of the break.
Connacht scrumhalf Shannen Lane’s cover defensive efforts were the measure of any loose froward on the pitch, the pint-sized powerhouse instrumental in snuffing out two Munster scores in the first-half.
The Reds’ clinical conviction in and around the fringe and 9-10 channel began causing major headaches for Connacht who scrambled well, but began to fracture and fray. Given the wealth of territory Munster had in the second quarter, they would be rightly disappointed with only 10 points in the bank but, with Connacht yet to trouble the scorers, could have been worse for the tourists.
The Connacht which returned from the clubhouse after halftime, employed the same tactics, the same enthusiasm, and (bar Mary Healy for Lane) the same personnel. From the off, everything stuck.
Whereas in the first half Connacht was guilty of trying to shift unsecure ball in contact, spraying passes under pressure low and behind support runners, timing tweaks in the second-half suggested nothing wrong with dressing room calibration, and Swiss watchmakers would do well to get hold of the 10-minute transcript.
Front rowers Laura Feely and Ciara O’Connor played their own game in tandem beyond the set-piece; a duet masterclass for any tight forwards with designs on the backline. Flankers Grainne Egan and Edel McMahon assumed the cover defensive role vacated by the tenacious Lane, and stand-in outhalf Hilary Griffin silenced any and all of her critics with an executive performance to rival any corporate highflyer. Tactical kicking was sound, talk vocal and defence admirable, but Griffin’s greatest virtue was finding the right bodies off both hands at pace, well-supported.
McMahon’s rapidfire tap penalty two metres out for Connacht’s first gave the 230-strong terrace something to roar about; Ali Miller, Feely and the ever-present O’Connor combined for Connacht’s second at 67minutes in the left-hand corner; and lock Amelie Roux’s bullocking twist from two metres out notched up the hosts’ third.
“This was their first rugby together, ever,” said coach Jarlath Naughton post-match.
“We’ve trained well, we’ve soaked up the info, repped out the set-piece stuff and largely improved every session, but until you play it out in live competition the success or failure of those systems remains one of rugby’s great unknowns.
“We struggled for 30minutes, smashed it for 50. That’s a pretty good shift on the grand scheme of things for a first day out. It just took 30minutes for the girls to get to know each other,” Naughton added.
In crisp but still, dry conditions, Crabtree’s performance with the whistle drew little to no criticism. Occasionally unforgiving where advantage was concerned, her direction and application throughout the fixture suggests a promising future at elite level and neither camp will likely object to seeing her again.
Munster hosts Ulster in Garryowen next Saturday, and Connacht heads to Dublin. Tomorrow afternoon’s Dromore clash between Ulster and Leinster will determine the stakes at play for round two. A resurgent Ulster tomorrow may well force Munster into survival mode for week two, or a runaway Leinster will test the mettle of a jubilant Connacht finding their feet in winning form.
Luke O’Donnell, Galway