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Munster kept the heat on the Magners League’s top two as they got the better of Connacht at a rain swept Musgrave Park in winger John Kelly’s final game for the province.
Munster are on a roll of late. This victory marked their fifth win in six matches in all competitions and it was a fitting way for John Kelly to call time on his professional career.
The 33-year-old Kelly, a Heineken Cup winner in 2006, has been one of Munster Rugby’s greatest servants and he got a hearty send-off from the vocal Cork crowd.
His team-mates also ensured he bowed out with a win and it was a deserved one as Declan Kidney’s side used the elements in the first half to build up a 12-0 lead.
After the break, they strangled the life out of Connacht with Denis Leamy’s 68th-minute try confirming the result and ensuring that Connacht continue to be winless on the road since their triumph at Border Reivers in September 2006.
The only downer for the men in red was a late knee injury to winger Ian Dowling who had to stretchered off. A medical update is expected from the province in the coming days.
In atrocious weather conditions, Munster were the more assured team in possession, aided no doubt by their performance away to Llanelli Scarlets in even worse conditions earlier this month.
Connacht were left ruing a high penalty count in the first half and their former fly half Paul Warwick, who transferred to Munster in the close season, knocked over four out of five penalty attempts to give the hosts a 12-0 buffer at the break.
Connacht had to shuffle their deck before kick-off with Liam Bibo, the Australian winger was set to make his provincial debut, crying off with a calf injury and centre Mel Deane (arm) and prop Robbie Morris (back) also unavailable.
Darren Yapp, Aidan Wynne and Ronan Loughney were the players promoted to the starting line-up but it was their former team-mate Warwick who had the most influence.
He kicked well behind a dominant pack in what was a forward-orientated game. Connacht showed plenty of intent with half-backs Andy Dunne and Conor O’Loughlin doing their utmost to inspire the men in black.
Munster full-back Denis Hurley had to be sharp to ward off an attack from Dunne in the 12th-minute, just after Warwick had notched his first penalty of the night.
Dunne combined well with lively centres Wynne and Danny Riordan, while Connacht full-back Gavin Duffy had an impressive outing, watched by Ireland coach Eddie O’Sullivan.
Warwick doubled Munster’s lead in the 17th-minute after back-chat from Johnny O’Connor, another player hoping to force his way into O’Sullivan’s plans, had moved the penalty kick into a more favourable position.
Munster tried to work Kelly into space but little was coming off for the red-shirted backs, especially with the Connacht defence so fired up.
They did click on the half-hour when Lifeimi Mafi and Kieran Lewis gained ground up the middle, Donncha O’Callaghan and Federico Pucciariello also took the ball on but accidental offside brought the move to a finish.
Two more Warwick kicks, the first after Connacht lock David Gannon had been sin-binned for killing the ball, nudged Munster 12-0 clear.
The westerners lost both Ofisa Treviranus and John Muldoon to injury during the opening period and needed a moment of magic from Dunne or Duffy or a slice to luck to break the deadlock.
Turning around into the driving rain, Kidney’s men knew they still had a big task on their hands. They succeeded in keeping play tight for the third quarter and continued to frustrate a Connacht side that kept plugging away until the final whistle.
What was effectively the match-winning score arrived twelve minutes from time when Warwick found space at close quarters before offloading for the supporting Pucciariello.
Tony Buckley then got on the ball and the giant prop managed to pass out of the tackle, allowing flanker Leamy the time and space to motor over from 10 metres out, to the left of the posts.
Connacht spent most of the last ten minutes in the Munster 22 but their efforts were in vain. It was Munster’s night and one to remember for Kelly who, having captained the province in his 154th and final game, was carried off the pitch shoulder-high by his team-mates.