Bundee Aki goes down kicking and screaming as Munster march on
"Five minutes of work. Let's go!"
Bundee Aki was not even supposed to be playing today. That, in itself, was a strange decision but a late injury pull-out was the correction we all needed.
He travelled to Dublin as back-up and was drafted onto the bench when Matt Healy withdrew from the matchday squad. He was handed the No.23 jersey and found himself on the pitch after on 24 minutes, with Connacht down in a hole and trailing 14-0.
What followed, thanks to the opponents, some fierce collisions, his competitive nature and the lack of crowd noise, made for a fascinating study of the man.
Even before Aki was brought on for the concussed Tiernan O'Halloran, he was playing a role in the game. Warming up behind the goal-posts, and walking back and forth to the team bench, Aki was a vocal cheerleader for his side. Abraham Papali'i, his fellow Kiwi, was getting the loudest cheers as he careened into Munster bodies with ball-in-hand. "Woooooooo! Yeahhhhh!" came the scream as the Connacht No.8 bounced CJ Stander back on one carry.
Aki and Papali'i shared the pitch together for all of two minutes, unfortunately. The Connacht forward had been incensed that referee Frank Murphy had penalised him on one carry. Perhaps seeking to right that perceived wrong, he crunched into Conor Murray with a tackle that started high and slipped higher, into the neck of the Munster scrum-half. Murphy flashed the red card and an apologetic Papali'i was done for the day.
Aki urged his teammates on. Only one angle, on the stadium's big screen, looked iffy so some of the Connacht players may have felt aggrieved with the call, especially after Conor Oliver had been sin-binned early in the game.
Their sense of indignation threatened to bubble over, on 34 minutes, when Shane Delahunt was sent off for ramming a forearm into the neck of CJ Stander on a carry. When the westerners sit down to review the game, both players may put their hand up over questionable tackle and carrying techniques.
Munster scored their third try of the game after 37 minutes and, at 21-0 down with nothing left to play for in their season, few would have grumbled too loudly had they packed it in and played damage limitations. Aki was not having it, though, and he was backed up by the likes of Caolin Blade, Conor Fitzgerald, Tom Daly and Quinn Roux.
Aki delivered the talk under the posts and Connacht sought to land some blows before the half-time break. Getting on the scoreboard, in some shape or form, was the goal. The 13 men played superbly for the next seven minutes as they pressed for a score that would give them something to build from [or cling onto, at least]. Munster, feeling the pressure, gave away a string of penalties and both Tadhg Beirne and Peter O'Mahony were sin-binned.
The half ended with an Aki try and both teams playing with 13 men. Everyone needed the break.
Connacht needed to score in the first six minutes of the second half, when there was parity in terms of playing numbers. Munster conceded three penalties during that period but Murphy kept his cards in his pocket.
Munster weathered the early pressure and solid counter-rucking from Niall Scannell forced a turnover that was effectively ended the contest. Keith Earls was denied a try in the corner but, on the next play, Conor Murray's bullet pass saw the returned Beirne hit a gap in the Connacht line and the bonus point was secured.
When Andrew Conway helped himself to his third and fourth tries in the space of eight days, Munster were 42-7 ahead and in danger of making it very ugly.
Still, Aki was talking, hollering and cajoling. He was finding inspiration in small victories all over the pitch. Whenever a turnover or penalty was won, you would hear the Connacht centre screaming his encouragement or see him jogging over to slap some backs. Conversely, whenever Munster had a big moment, you would hear his name being called out by the men in red. He was giving juice to both sets of players.
And then there was his ongoing feud with Munster flanker Chris Cloete. It is unclear whether there is history - stretching back to other inter-pro battles - between the two or if this was a fresh beef, but it was plenty meaty.
Whenever either man got the chance, they would go at it. They would find each other in open play, or at the breakdown, and take cuts off each other.
Aki, at one stage, found Cloete over on the left wing and delivered a lusty tackle into the South African's ribs. Cloete bounced out of that and into another tackle before getting penalised for holding on to the ball. Aki was waiting for him. Standing over Cloete as he rose from the turf, he let him have a couple of 'Woooooo's' before rejoining his teammates.
Cloete had the penultimate laugh as he found Aki - just to remind him of the newly updated scoreline - when James Cronin crashed over for Munster.
Aki responded to that jibe by making an excellent line-break that almost got him his second try of the day. It was almost as Keith Earls leapt on his back to add that to his bulging portfolio of try-saving tackles.
Connacht did get the final try of the game - and their season - when Jonny Murphy finished off a passing sequence over in the far corner. 49-12 and a lop-sided scoreboard but one that did not do full justice to the long periods of fight Connacht managed.
And there, with five minutes to go and his team trailing by 37 points, was Aki yelling at his teammates that they had five minutes of real work to do before their season was over.
Munster march on to a Friday evening semi-final with Leinster while Connacht will take a few weeks off before returning to rip into 2020/21. One hopes Andy Friend is given some leeway to bring in a couple of fresh bodies and provide some more support to the likes of Aki.