Galwegians outscored Young Munster by three tries to none as they kicked off 2016 with a well-judged 15-12 Ulster Bank League win at Crowley Park on Saturday afternoon.
Young Munster, who had their hooker and captain Ger Slattery red carded late on, fell to their first defeat in five Division 1A games. Gearoid Lyons (three penalties) and David O'Mahony (drop goal) kicked the visitors' points.
As the corresponding fixture in early December was postponed due to the bad weather, both sides were relatively ring rusty after a period of five weeks without Ulster Bank League action. In truth it showed early on with errors abounding throughout, and poor handling and decision-making affecting the hosts in particular.
Munsters came into this game on the back of a four-match winning streak, and although they made the livelier start, it was the hosts who opened the scoring in the fourth minute.
It followed some pressurised defence by the Galwegians back-line, and when an attempted chip through was blocked, winger Ed O'Keeffe latched onto the loose ball. The former Young Munster man displayed some excellent control and footwork to hack on three times before gathering and diving over near the left corner for the game's opening try.
Another former Munsters man, 'Wegians out-half Shane O'Leary, was off target with the difficult conversion. Undaunted by the early setback, the Cookies took up where they left off and went on the offensive.
'Wegians were starting to get on the wrong side of referee Nigel Correll, especially at the breakdown, and Young Munster centre Lyons soon opened their account with his first shot at the posts to make it 5-3.
The ever-mounting penalty count looked like being costly for the Galway outfit, but a key turning point came on 15 minutes when another penalty at the breakdown was reversed against the visitors following the intervention of a touch judge.
This led to the harsh sin-binning of Munsters second row Mike Madden in what seemed a case of mistaken identity. The Blues took full advantage when the penalty kick to the corner set up a textbook lineout maul, with blindside flanker Marc Kelly getting on the end of the forward rumble to score try number two. O'Leary was again off target with the conversion attempt, leaving the hosts 10-3 to the good.
Munsters then went on the attack again at the start of the second quarter, and when 'Wegians number 8 Anthony Ryan was sin-binned for taking out a jumper in the air, they smelt blood. They looked certain to score when their dominant scrum set up a series of pick and goes near the hosts' try-line, only for desperate Blues defence to keep them at bay. Munsters settled instead for a three-pointer courtesy of a drop goal from out-half O'Mahony.
Despite struggling in the scrums where the visitors were clearly dominant, 'Wegians had the greater potency in attack. However, their clinical finishing in the first quarter suddenly deserted them as they spurned at least two glorious try-scoring chances before the break to put them in a commanding position, with the final pass not going to hand.
Indeed it was the Cookies who had the final say of the opening half when Lyons struck his second penalty to leave the narrowest of margins at half-time with the Blues 10-9 ahead.
'Wegians made the better start to the second period, however decision-making was again hampering them, including one key decision in the 46th minute when they turned down a very kickable penalty to go for the corner. A determined Cookies defence turned them over and relieved the pressure.
The visitors' ascendancy in the set piece was giving them a constant platform, and when some sloppy handling in the Wegians back-line saw them cough up a scrum near their line, it led to another penalty under the posts on the hour mark. Although he was short minutes beforehand with a long range effort, Lyons made no mistake this time to put his side in front for the first time at 12-10.
With rival coaches Matt Brown and David Corkery both ringing the changes from the bench, the game was now delicately poised entering the closing stages. Particularly influential for 'Wegians were replacement out-half Aidan Moynihan, who started to gain some promising territory with judicious line-kicking, and replacement hooker Juan Anaya, who was prominent in the loose and unerring with his darts.
It seemed a case of who wanted it most would claim the spoils, and this is where the home side came up trumps. Not for the first time this season the Blues dug deep, and spurred on by inspirational leadership from captain Ja Naughton, who led tirelessly from the front, they took the game to their opponents.
With this New Year's clash entering stoppage time, 'Wegians duly earned their just rewards when a lineout maul was eventually finished off by flanker Kelly who once again profited from the Trojan efforts of his pack to ground the winning score near the right corner.
Unfortunately a fracas in the immediate aftermath led to the sin-binning of 'Wegians replacement prop Doran McHugh and a red card for Young Munster skipper Slattery. Referee Correll also awarded 'Wegians a penalty from the restart, and this allowed the Blues to close out the game on the attack and seal a hard-earned four points.
This vital win sees Brown's charges move up to eighth place in the Division 1A table as they overtake Terenure College. Next up for them is an away trip to bottom side Ballynahinch.
Referee: Nigel Correll (IRFU)