Connacht 8 Leinster 45
Leinster are the toughest opponents around as it is, but are harder still when their opponents are reduced to 14 men after the first two minutes.
Tom Daly’s third minute red card all but did for Connacht’s challenge and although they rallied to lead improbably at the break, the four-in-a-row champions pulled clear with six unanswered second-half tries to re-assert their supremacy atop the table.
Whether or not the home fans in the 8,129 capacity crowd wonder about the decision to sign a quartet of Leinster players, ironically this provided proof, were it needed, that Leinster’s production line is unrivalled.
Three of the four Connacht-bound players acquitted themselves admirably in what will be their home ground next season, albeit so did many of their other homegrown young tyros. But none did so more than David Hawkshaw, who replaced Ross Byrne before half-time, and in tandem with the talented Ciarán Frawley pulled the strings and pulled an outnumbered Connacht apart.
In deflating the home team and home crowd alike after the break, Leinster also fired a warning shot regarding the provinces’ forthcoming Champions Cup last 16 two-legged tie, beginning with another meeting here in a fortnight.
Leinster had been a little ragged and seemingly rattled in the first half by a Connacht side who will also rue many mistakes of their own, before their pack re-asserted their control in the set-piece. While Connacht's first-half performance personified the pride in their jersey, this result means they're very unlikely to reach the URC play-offs.
The game couldn’t have had a more explosive, or in truth anti-climactic, start and the triple effects on the game were profound.
Literally from Ross Byrne’s kick-off, Tommy O’Brien chased hard and competed in the air, but in doing so yanked Niall Murray to the ground, the Connacht lock landing on his back.
The Leinster winger was duly sinbinned, although Jack Carty missed the penalty to touch and moments later Connacht were also reduced to 14 men, but for the remainder of the match, as Daly hit Frawley in the neck after the pass and, what's more, did so without wrapping.
The review only made Chris Busby’s decision more inevitable and after the red card was brandished Daly immediately ran over to Frawley, who was thankfully fine, to apologise. It wouldn’t be his last apology of the night.
Byrne responded to strong fringe defence by finding touch inside the Connacht 22 and this was rewarded with a costly crooked throw by Dave Heffernan. Leinster went to the corner from a scrum penalty, and though Tracy was held up just short - as were Frawley, Byrne, Penny and several others - Luke McGrath and Byrne went wide for Rory O’Loughlin to score. Byrne also landed the touchline conversion.
Connacht’s task now looked even more mountainous.
However, although both sides were guilty of pushing the pass or offload, Connacht upped their defensive line speed to force handling errors and turnovers.
They were also having some success when competing on Leinster ruck ball and on the away side’s lineout. Heffernan latched onto an overthrow before three Leinster players went off their feet for Carty to land the 40 metre penalty and when Leinster went up the line Oisin Dowling cleanly pilfered James Tracy’s throw - effectively a third lineout lost by Leinster.
Furthermore, despite Denis Buckley hobbling off to be replaced by Matthew Burke, Connacht’s scrum held firm and even began to gain a clear ascendancy.
A huge shunt earned a penalty 40 metres out and this time Carty opted to go up the line. They also opted for a five metre scrum from another penalty close to the posts, and after hammering away at the Leinster line off Tom Farrell’s initial carry up the middle, this time Kieran Marmion and Carty went wide, the latter’s huge left to right pass was finished sharply by Tiernan O’Halloran.
The difference was that Carty pushed a more kickable conversion wide, but still the home crowd and team alike were emboldened by taking a lead into the interval, if only 8-7. Deserved too, but it had taken a monumental effort.
Either side of the O’Halloran try, the unfortunate Frawley was in the wars again when he and Byrne collided in tackling John Porch, and the Leinster centre went off for an HIA. So too, minutes later, did Byrne although whereas Frawley returned, Byrne didn’t.
This meant Hawkshaw had to run the Leinster ship from outhalf and a fine job he did of it too. This was helped, admittedly, by the Leinster scrum reasserting itself. Initially, the backline play remained inaccurate, typified by a Hawkshaw knock on but finally they began to reach the edges, first with Tracy up the left, then with the galloping Rhys Ruddock up the right.
Although Porch made the try-saving tackle, when the ball came back into midfield, Hawkshaw slipped the tackle of Dowling and took the tackles of Murray to finish well and land the conversion.
Leinster also had joy from targeting the ball in the tackle, as Hawkshaw ripped it from Ultan Dillane and then kicked in behind. After regaining possession, Luke McGrath beat Heffernan's tackle on the fringe to scamper clear for the bonus point.
Leinster’s young tyros now had no fear, or doubts. When Jarrad Buttler had the ball ripped from him, Jimmy O’Brien countered threateningly before Porch failed to deal with Hawkshaw’s wicked grubber and Frawley pounced for the try.
But Frawley’s fend and offload to release Tommy O’Brien was even better and, as if to rub more salt into their wounds, another of the quartet of Connacht-bound Leinster players, Josh Murphy made a big incision before Max Deegan’s close-range finish.
Suddenly it was 38-8 and the Sportsground was largely becalmed. Arguably the pick of Leinster’s seven tries was the last one, albeit against outnumbered, beaten and ‘ghost’ opposition. Tommy O’Brien came off his wing to take Osborne’s pull-back amid plenty off off-the-ball animation to complete a beautiful backline strike move off a line-out.
Scoring sequence - 14 mins: O'Loughlin try, Byrne con 0-7; 22 mins: Carty pen 3-7; 39 mins: O'Halloran try 8-7; (half-time 8-7); 53 mins: Hawkshaw try and con 8-14; 56 mins: McGrath try, Hawkshaw con 8-21; 64 mins: Frawley try 8-26; 67 mins: T O'Brien try 8-31; 72 mins: Deegan try, Hawkshaw con 8-38; 77 mins: T O'Brien try, Hawkshaw con 8-45.
Connacht: Tiernan O'Halloran; John Porch, Tom Farrell, Tom Daly, Oran McNulty; Jack Carty (capt), Kieran Marmion; Denis Buckley, Dave Heffernan, Jack Aungier; Oisin Dowling, Niall Murray; Cian Prendergast, Conor Oliver, Jarrad Butler.
Replacements: Matthew Burke for Buckley (30 mins), Diarmuid Kilgallen for McNulty (46 mins), Greg McGrath for Aungier, Ultan Dillane for Murray (both 56 mins), Paul Boyle for Oliver, Sammy Arnold for Farrell (both 62 mins), Jonny Murphy for Heffernan, Caolin Blade for Marmion (both 66 mins).
Sent-off: Daly (3 mins).
Leinster: Jimmy O'Brien; Tommy O'Brien, Jamie Osborne, Ciarán Frawley, Rory O'Loughlin; Ross Byrne, Luke McGrath (capt); Peter Dooley, James Tracy, Michael Ala'alatoa; Ross Molony, Joe McCarthy; Rhys Ruddock, Scott Penny, Max Deegan.
Replacements: Chris Cosgrave for Frawley (32-40 mins) and for J O’Brien 78 mins), Dave Hawkshaw for Byrne (38-48 mins), Ed Byrne for Dooley (51 mins), Thomas Clarkson for Ala’alatoa, Josh Murphy for Mcarthy (both 65 mins), Martin Moloney for Ruddock, Nick McCarthy for McGrath (both 67 mins), Seán Cronin for Tracy (69 mins).
Sinbinned: Tommy O’Brien (1-11 mins).
Referee: Chris Busby (IRFU).