URC: Connacht 22 Leinster 24
Staring defeat in the face, but given one last chance of salvation, Leinster conjured a brilliant try as the clock moved passed the 81-minute mark to snatch a famous victory from the home side Connacht and becalm what had been a vibrant home crowd.
In doing so, they assumed top spot in the URC heading into next Sunday’s grudge Champions Cup rematch with La Rochelle. Despite their 14 changes, Leinster still fielded twice as many internationals in their starting XV (10 to five) and in their match-day squad (14 to seven), and their class ultimately showed, if just about.
Ciaran Frawley was Leinster’s match-winner with their fourth try in the final play, but for all the debate about his selection at outhalf, Harry Byrne had a superb game, playing flat to the gain line, fizzing out passes off both hands and adding in one exquisite cross kick. Outside him, Charlie Ngatai had a big game, and Jason Jenkins also delivered.
Inspired by Caolin Blade and Mack Hansen, at fullback from early on, Connacht scored three fantastic tries and appeared set to continue their unbeaten home record in 2023 by ending a six-match losing sequence, but will rue their discipline at times and their failure to see out a wining position in what will be a painful defeat.
On a cold but dry and still night in Galway, with its 4G pitch and expanded, expectant 8,129 capacity, the Sportsground looked a picture on a perfect winger’s night for rugby.
Both sides were quick to move the ball to their left wingers, Diarmuid Kilgallen and Jamie Osborne, which required a good tackle by Scott Penny and some calm and clever covering by Caolin Blade.
Connacht looked to have suffered a serious blow, all the more so with a 6-2 split, when Tiernan O’Halloran was an early casualty with what seemed an injury to his left ankle. David Hawkshaw came on in midfield, with Byron Ralston shifting to the wing and the returning Mack Hansen to fullback.
They must have this combination in training, for it clicked immediately with probably the try of the season so far at the ground. It started with Connacht stealing a second Leinster throw through Darragh Murray, from which Hawkshaw showed good footwork to jink through the initial white line.
From the recycle inside halfway, Hansen’s trademark “square” carry and left to right pass released Ralston, who made ground before returning the pass inside to Hansen, whose offload afforded the supporting Hawkshaw to finish in the corner.
This had the added advantage for maximising the Sportsground factor, for the crowd are at their best when given something positive to roar about – all the more so against Leinster.
In response, Leinster set up camp deep inside the Connacht 22 thanks to Harry Byrne’s well-weighted kick and Rob Russell’s follow-up tackle on Blade earned a five-metre scrum. But that attack foundered on Byrne’s knock-on and three more attacking lineouts and two more entries also came to nought thanks to a lack of accuracy, Scott Penny being penalised for crossing and Jason Jenkins, on his 28th birthday, failing to hold Byrne’s flat pass before Charlie Ngatai knocked on.
What’s more, the last four of these forays followed a ridiculous decision by Chris Busby and TMO Olly Hodges to sinbin Cathal Forde for what they deemed was head-to-head contact with Ngatai, when the latter clearly led with his shoulder into the Connacht centre, who was dipping, with his shoulder.
Of course, perceived injustices also turn up the Clan Stand’s decibel levels, and Connacht’s energy when defending inside their own 22 was considerably more intense than a week ago in Pretoria. They even outscored Leinster in Forde’s 10-minute absence thanks to a scrum penalty by JJ Hanrahan to make it 8-0.
But when another scrum penalty led to some all-in collar grabbing, the penalty was reversed against Shamus Hurley-Langton – who had been having a strong impact at the breakdown and in the tackle – for grabbing Ryan Baird’s headgear.
By the law of averages, this had to tell and it did after Seán Jansen was also harshly pinged for playing the scrumhalf when it seemed more a good counter-ruck. From one of Leinster’s clever close-range penalty moves, Scott Penny feinted to tap and charge, instead standing away as Ben Murphy stepped forward, tapped and by-passed the pod for Charlie Ngatai to break through Hanrahan’s tackle and score his first Leinster try.
Byrne converted before Connacht built up another head of steam, turning down a shot at goal in the final minute of the half after Penny was twice penalised in quick succession for not rolling away, but Ryan Baird picked off the throw to keep it a one-point game at the break.
The early second-half sparks came from Connacht, Ralson, Forde and Blade linking for one exciting counter and Niall Murray chasing down the latter’s grubber, and Ciaran Frawley could only help Hanrahan’s attempted 50/22 over the touchline, but having also lost Niall Murray early on, their lineout malfunctioned twice.
Leinster also cranked up their line speed and tackle execution as Robbie Henshaw brought his presence to bear on his old beat, while the introduction of Cian Healy and Tadhg Furlong also cranked up their scrum and maul.
From a big maul, Cormac Foley’s quick tap drew a yellow card for Peter Dooley, who had also had a highly energised game against his former province, and from the quick tap Jenkins eventually burrowed over.
Leinster turned the screw, Niall Murray doing enough to prevent Penny ground the ball after Byrne’s sumptuous crosskick to Russell and Penny’s own clean break. But even so they seemed set for victory when Ngatai’s grubber to the corner for Russell, the ball breaking off Hansen and Kilgallen for Kelleher to score by the corner flag and a 19-8 lead.
Connacht were in desperate need of inspiration, and duly found it. From Kilgallen’s take, Connacht used an advantage play for Paul; Boyle to take a god line on to Hanrahan’s pass and free his hands to release Forde, and Blade was on hand in support to finish another superb try.
Then a counterruck on halfway by Cian Prendergast and Dylan Tierney-Martin led to a steal by Boyle, who had a huge impact in his delayed seasonal debut.
Two rucks later, Hansen took a lovely line on to Hanrahan’s flat pass to beat Max Deegan on his outside and give Kilgallen a clear run to the line and Hanrahan’s conversion put them 22-18 ahead.
As the clock ran down, Lee Barron’s crooked throw and Denis Buckley duped a penalty out of Furlong to seemingly seal the deal. But Dylan Tierney-Martin’s throw was crooked, affording Leinster one last chance from a scrum on halfway.
With Byrne again pulling the strings, there was an excellent shape to Leinster’s attack as they went to the edges and kept making ground, eventually stretching Connacht’s defence to breaking point for Frawley to step two despairing cover tackles and score the match-winning and even bonus-point try.
The Sportsground largely fell into a stunned quietness.
Scoring sequence: 9 mins Hawkshaw try 5-0; 23 mins Hanrahan pen 8-0;36 mins Ngatai try, Byrne con 8-7; (half-time 8-7); 51 mins Jenkins try, Byrne con 8-14; 56 mins Kelleher try 8-19; 64 mins Blade try, Hanrahan con (15-19); 70 mins Kilgallen, Hanrahan con 22-19; 82 mins Frawley try 22-24.
Connacht: Tiernan O’Halloran, Mack Hansen, Byron Ralston, Cathal Forde, Diarmuid Kilgallen, JJ Hanrahan, Caolin Blade (CAPT), Peter Dooley, Dave Heffernan, Jack Aungier, Darragh Murray, Oisin Dowling, Cian Prendergast, Shamus Hurley-Langton, Seán Jansen
Replacements: David Hawkshaw for O’Halloran (7 mins), Niall Murray for Dowling (12-18 and 30 mins), Finlay Bealham for Aungier (52 mins), Paul Boyle for Jansen (56 mins), Denis Buckley for Boyle (60-63 mins) and for Dooley (63 mins), Dylan Tierney-Martin for Heffernan (65 mins), Conor Oliver for Hurley-Langton (54 mins),
Not used – Michael McDonald.
Sinbinned – Forde 17-27 mins), Dooley (53-63 mins).
Leinster: Ciarán Frawley, Rob Russell, Robbie Henshaw, Charlie Ngatai, Jamie Osborne, Harry Byrne, Ben Murphy, Ed Byrne, Rónan Kelleher, Michael Ala’alatoa, Ryan Baird, Jason Jenkins, Max Deegan, Scott Penny (CAPT), James Culhane
Replacements: Cian Healy for Byrne, Tadhg Furlong for Ala’alatoa (both 46 mins), Ross Molony for Deegan, Cormac Foley for Murphy (both 50 mins), Liam Turner for Osborne (60 mins), Deegan for Culhane (54 mins), Will Connors for Penny (76 mins).
Not used – Jack Conan.
Referee: Chris Busby (IRFU)
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