Ireland lock Paul O'Connell made his comeback from a hand injury in Munster's 36-17 Celtic League derby win over Connacht on Tuesday night - scoring a try in the process.
CELTIC LEAGUE: Tuesday, December 27
MUNSTER 36 CONNACHT 17, Thomond Park
Scorers: Munster: Tries: Denis Leamy, Paul O'Connell, Anthony Horgan, Federico Pucciariello; Cons: Jeremy Manning, Ronan O'Gara; Pens: Jeremy Manning 4
Connacht: Tries: Joe Merrigan, Paul Warwick; Cons: Paul Warwick 2; Pen: Paul Warwick
Munster put in a barnstorming second half display to condemn bottom side Connacht to their ninth consecutive Celtic League defeat and, in the process, move five points clear of Edinburgh Gunners at the top of the table.
On a night when O'Connell ended his three-month enforced absence from rugby, Munster stung their provincial rivals with three tries from stand-in captain O'Connell, Anthony Horgan and Federico Pucciariello in the action-packed closing half-hour at Thomond Park.
The win - Munster's 20th in 21 home games - pulls Declan Kidney's men a full six points clear of chief Irish chasers Ulster (third). Leinster, whom Munster visit on New Year's Eve, are a further point behind. Connacht, meanwhile, after squaring up the game - seven minutes into the second half - thanks to fly-half Paul Warwick's converted try, are still nine points adrift at the bottom of the standings. Ulster visit the Sportsground on Saturday.
Munster, who looked odds-on to score in the second minute only for a forward pass from Shaun Payne to Barry Murphy to end a lightning left wing attack, deservedly hit the front nine minutes in. Ireland flanker Denis Leamy, partnered by regular lock Donncha O'Callaghan and Shannon number 8 Stephen Keogh in the home back row, bulldozed over in the right corner after good interlinking play between former New Zealand Schools fly-half Jeremy Manning, Leamy and South African winger Anthon Pitout. Manning chipped his conversion attempt against the post.
The 20-year-old Manning never let his head dip however, and he drilled over lengthy penalties on 14, 25 and 37 minutes to display his burgeoning confidence and send Munster into the interval armed with a 14-7.
It could have been more, but Connacht, for whom prop Dan McFarland was making his 100th appearance in green, deserved to be in touch. Their pack was more than a match for the home one at times, and their first try on 21 minutes came off a close-in lineout rumble. The 23-year-old hooker Joe Merrigan was on the end of the drive to score his first try for the province. Warwick converted for an 8-7 deficit.
Manning missed an injury-time penalty shot at 14-7 up, and Munster were made to pay the price when Australian Warwick, showing all of his Sevens' experience, dummied past centre Murphy to go over near the posts. The Connacht number 10's conversion squared up an electric encounter, but Munster, who unloaded a replacements bench boasting 221 international caps, had too much in the tank.
O'Connell showed no ill-affects of the hand injury that had seen him sidelined since September when he stole a 53rd-minute lineout from the westerners' captain Andrew Farley and plunged over from five metres out. Ireland prop John Hayes gave O'Connell superb support at the set piece.
A Warwick penalty cut the deficit back to 21-17 for Connacht, but yellow cards for flanker Michael Swift, for a high tackle on Peter Stringer, and replacement prop Stephen Knoop - for a scrum infringement - hampered the visitors' hopes.
Munster made certain of the win when Manning slotted his fourth penalty and Gary Connolly sent out a long pass for the unmarked Horgan to touch down on 73 minutes. Ronan O'Gara, on as a replacement for Manning, drilled over the conversion with aplomb.
Italian prop Pucciariello, fed by Anthony Foley, another of Munster's experienced replacements, scored in the right corner in injury-time to chalk up a valuable bonus point for Kidney's side.
In the end, Connacht deserved to be closer - so too their new mascot 'Eddie The Eagle', who was banned by Munster from his usual sideline perch to the stands.
TIMELINE: 9 minutes - Munster try: Denis Leamy - 5-0; conversion: missed - 5-0; 14 mins - Munster penalty: Jeremy Manning - 8-0; 21 mins - Connacht try: Joe Merrigan - 8-5; conversion: Paul Warwick - 8-7; 25 mins - Munster penalty: Jeremy Manning - 11-7; 37 mins - Munster penalty: Jeremy Manning - 14-7; HT - MUNSTER 14 CONNACHT 7; 47 mins - Connacht try: Paul Warwick - 14-12; conversion: Paul Warwick - 14-14; 53 mins - Munster try: Paul O'Connell - 19-14; conversion: Jeremy Manning - 21-14; 56 mins - Connacht penalty: Paul Warwick - 21-17; 57 mins - Connacht yellow card: Michael Swift; 65 mins - Munster penalty: Jeremy Manning - 24-17; 73 mins - Munster try: Anthony Horgan - 29-17; conversion: Ronan O'Gara - 31-17; 80 mins - Connacht yellow card: Stephen Knoop; 80(+2) mins - Munster try: Federico Pucciariello - 36-17; conversion: missed - 36-17; FT - MUNSTER 36 CONNACHT 17
MUNSTER: Shaun Payne; Anthon Pitout, Barry Murphy, Gary Connolly, Anthony Horgan; Jeremy Manning, Tomas O'Leary; Federico Pucciariello, Denis Fogarty, John Hayes, Trevor Hogan, Paul O'Connell (capt), Donncha O'Callaghan, Denis Leamy, Stephen Keogh.
Replacements used: Jerry Flannery for Fogarty (18 mins), Peter Stringer for Pitout (54), Marcus Horan for Hayes (63), Ronan O'Gara for Manning (65), Anthony Foley for Keogh (67), Mick O'Driscoll for O'Connell (70), Trevor Halstead for Connolly (76).
CONNACHT: David Slemen; Matt Mostyn, Andrew Mailei, Gavin Williams, Conor McPhillips; Paul Warwick, Tom Tierney; Dan McFarland, Joe Merrigan, Adrian Clarke, David Gannon, Andrew Farley (capt), Michael Swift, Brendan O'Connor, John Muldoon.
Replacements used: Chris Keane for Tierney (49 mins), Ray Hogan for McFarland, Stephen Knoop for Clarke (both 60), John Fogarty for Merrigan (63), John Hearty for Mailei, Matt Lacey for O'Connor (both 70), Ted Robinson for Warwick (75).
Sin-Bin: Michael Swift (Connacht) (57 mins), Stephen Knoop (Connacht) (80)
Referee: Alain Rolland (Ireland)