Connacht 22 Leinster 24
Connacht have suffered some acutely painful defeats against Leinster over the years, but few more cruel than this. Rolling with the punches to stealthily strike for the lead in front of a pulsating and packed Sportsground, they were within executing one lineout from completing Connacht’s first ever unbeaten home record in a calendar of this competition.
On a bitterly cold, but still and dry night in Galway, the extended capacity crowd of 8,129 were treated to a richly entertaining, rollercoaster of a derby, but ultimately it ended in bitter anticlimax for the vast majority present.
Connacht lived off relative scraps, thanks in the main to the excellence of Leinster’s defensive lineout. With 43 per cent possession and 34 per cent territory, Connacht still conjured 11 clean breaks to six and looking to have secured a memorable first home win over Leinster in seven attempts nearing the 80-minute mark.
The early loss of Oisin Dowling may have affected their lineout, while the reshuffle which followed the departure of the rejuvenated Tiernan O’Halloran was offset by the impact of David Hawkshaw, Byron Ralston reverting to the wing, and most of all Mack Hansen auditioning at fullback. Wow.
Hansen has been touted as a putative understudy for the remarkable Hugo Keenan, and was tried there for a couple of games last season by Andy Friend with mixed results, but this was compelling evidence that he really could be a viable option. He made three of those breaks, beat eight defenders, made 130 metres and had two try assists.
“I thought Mack was fantastic,” said Pete Wilkins, “and I think not just the excitement of when he got on the ball and counter-attacked, which was a key bit of the damage I thought we did to Leinster at times, but also some of the4 calmness and control, of when to kick to touch, when to pass as opposed to when to run, a really important couple of tackles in the 22 when we were under a bit of pressure, I just thought his all-round game was really well balanced but with quality as well.”
Connacht’s first try was a cracker and showcased Hansen’s playmaking skills. It emanated from Darragh Murray’s lineout steal inside halfway, and stepping Charlie Ngatai and Harry Byrne before offloading to Dave Heffernan, before quick, square on passing by JJ Hanrahan and Hansen released Byron Ralston, and Hansen, with his vital second touch, was the link with a swerve and pass out of the tackle for Hawkshaw to finish.
Thereafter roared on by the crowd, some big Connacht defensive sets and Leinster’s inaccuracies maintained the lead. But having extended the lead with a Hanrahan scrum penalty, a costly reversed scrum penalty against the otherwise excellent Shamus Hurley-Langton for grabbing Ryan Baird’s headgear eventually led to Ngatai muscling past Hanrahan from another of Leinster’s clever tap variations.
Connacht’s 8-7 interval lead might have been four points had they opted for a shot at goal in the last play of the first period, but Baird nicked the throw.
Pete Wilkins backed his players’ call. “There are obviously big swings in games when you get them or when you don’t get them but I love that we’re positive in that moment and I think we need to nurture that, and I think we’ll get the rewards from that.”
Hansen kept probing, and Ralston, Cathal Forde and Caolin Blade countered thrillingly, and Ciaran Frawley couldn’t prevent Hanrahan’s attempted 50/22, but the influential Jason Jenkins and Baird picked off another couple of Heffernan throws before a third completely malfunctioned.
Following the introduction of Cian Healy and Tadhg Furlong, and with Ngatai also having a big game, Leinster ruined the screw in a dominant spell with tries by Jenkins, on his 28th birthday, and Rónan Kelleher either side of Scott Penny being held up over the line to lead 19-8.
Whereupon, ironically after another Baird steal, Connacht sprang vibrantly back into life. From Diarmuid Kilgallen’s take, Hanrahan took Darragh Murray’s pull back to hit Paul Boyle, who had a huge impact on his delayed seasonal return. He freed is hands to release Forde, excellent again, who sent the supporting Blade clear.
Boyle soon pilfered turnover ball after counter-rucking by Cian Prendergast, Dylan Tierney-Martin and Denis Buckley, and Hansen took Hanrahan’s flat pass to glide between Max Deegan and Rob Russell to send Kilgallen haring away for his fifth try of the season.
Lethal off turnovers, transitions and counter-attacks, heaven knows what Connacht what Connacht might have done with a more productive lineout. Even then, with Cormac Foley enlivening Leinster, the home seemed to have held out, but a very tight crooked call – as much due to Tierney-Martin’s standing position as the throw – gave Leinster one last shot from halfway in overtime.
Five phases and a minute later, with almost every pass on the money, and having stretched Connacht right and left, Frawley stepped two desperately covering defenders to steal the win and largely stun the Sportsground into silence.
While Wilkins acknowledged the “missed opportunities” which came with losing six lineouts, he said: “I don’t think it’s the story of the game. I think in terms of the ebb and flow of that game we still had our opportunities but certainly as good as we were on transition in attack and counter-attack, you want to be able to layer that with some structured play as well, and we could have done with a couple of those this evening.”
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), Lee Barron for Kelleher (65 mins), Will Connors for Penny (76 mins). Not used: Jack Conan.
Referee: Chris Busby (IRFU)