Leinster win at the Sportsground but Connacht have leg to stand on

It’s advantage Leinster after European Champions Cup round of 16, first leg

Connacht 21 Leinster 26

Advantage Leinster but to nothing like the degree the bookies or many might have expected. The two Irish rivals fairly battered each other in a captivating contest, if not quite into submission, and will go again next Friday at the Aviva with Leinster five points ahead.

At various junctures it looked like Leinster, bursting with Triple Crown winners, might pull clear but on an historic and proud night at the Sportsground – which crackled with more atmosphere than the Aviva and Thomond Park of late – a defiant Connacht seriously threatened to take a lead to Dublin.

The Leinster pack cranked up the power at set-piece, particularly in the scrum, and Connacht’s defence withstood a fair old battering from Leinster’s array of big runners and ruck speed.

Man of the match was a Mayo man, Caelan Doris maintaining his serious form with a big-carrying, hard-tackling and offloading game which was illustrative of Leinster’s heavy hitters. James Lowe provided the cutting edge in tandem with Hugo Keenan as well as his mighty left boot.

But the workload of the Connacht forwards was immense, not least Finlay Bealham, Conor Oliver and Cian Prendergast, and they increasingly slowed down Leinster's ruck ball. Their big guns rose to the occasion too, Jack Carty pulling the strings, Bundee Aki emptying himself on both sides of the ball and Mack Hansen's involvements bordered on the ridiculous.

Big carries by Tom Farrell and particularly Aki had Connacht setting the tone from the off, and after a Leve Fifita’s charge down on Jimmy O’Brien’s clearance kept them on the front foot before lovely hands by Aki out the back and Carty put the pacey John Porch over for a stunning start.

But Leinster, winning the kick tennis, established s foothold and after a Johnny Sexton penalty they went through the phases, reaching the edges as Tadhg Furlong showcased his distribution skills.

Soft pass

First Keenan worked a switch for Lowe to finish from 40 metres and then Keenan took a lovely line from a soft pass by Lowe, who was then on hand to score his second.

But Carty landed a penalty after an outrageous chip, gather and offload by Hansen for Tiernan O’Halloran, who was brilliantly denied by the covering Josh van der Flier.

Sexton restored Leinster’s 10 point lead after Luke McGrath picked off Farrell’s pass out the back but more pyrotechnics from Hansen, running across field and linking with O’Halloran, led to Carty landing another penalty.

Another Carty penalty followed upon the restart after Oliver backed up a carry by Prendergast with a pick, charge and offload to Aki, who was denied by McGrath’s tackle.

A key moment followed though when Jimmy O’Brien charged down Farrell’s ensuing clearance and tackled Carty over the line. Although Lowe had a third try, from a third Keenan assist, ruled out for McGrath’s fumble at the base another big scrum led to Keenan scoring untouched from Jamison Gibson-Park’s first pass of the night. It was Leinster’s 100th try of the season, in 19 games.

Gibson-Park's next involvement was altogether more controversial as he caught Kieran Marmion with a shoulder to the jaw. Karl Dickson decreed that as Gibson-Park had not stepped forward and he only brandished a yellow card to the bewilderment of the home crowd.

Charges

Their fury was soon soothed after Carty pinged a penalty from the 10 metre line into the corner and a second catch-and-drive led to a sequence of charges before Fifita muscled over.

Carty converted and Connacht were vibrantly alive, countering through Porch and Conor Fitzgerald, who was denied by Lowe’s covering tackle before Oisin Dowling and Abraham Papali’i were held up inches short.

With Gibson-Park back, Josh Van der Flier turned the tide, wrestling a turnover and beating three tackles, but Aki denied James Tracy a touchdown and Ross Byrne missed a penalty to the corner before Aki brilliantly tracked Doris.

A crooked throw meant Connacht couldn’t release the pressure, but when Leinster came looking to kill the tie after a Byrne penalty, fittingly Sammy Arnold, barely on, fairly hammered van der Flier in to touch.

CONNACHT: Tiernan O'Halloran; John Porch, Tom Farrell, Bundee Aki, Mack Hansen; Jack Carty (capt), Kieran Marmion; Matthew Burke, Dave Heffernan, Finlay Bealham, Gavin Thornbury, Leva Fifita, Cian Pendergast, Conor Oliver, Jarrad Butler.

Replacements: Conor Fitzgerald for O’Halloran (half-time); Oisin Dowling for Thornbury (53 mins), Tiete Tuimauga for Burke (57 mins), Abraham Papali’I for Butler, Caolin Blade for Marmion (both 62 mins), Dylan Tiernan-Martin for Heffernan, Jack Aungier for Bealham (both 71 mins), Sammy Arnold for Farrell (77 mins).

LEINSTER: Hugo Keenan; Jimmy O'Brien, Garry Ringrose, Robbie Henshaw, James Lowe; Johnny Sexton (capt), Luke McGrath; Cian Healy, Dan Sheehan, Tadhg Furlong, Ed Byrne, James Tracy, Michael Ala'alatoa, Ross Molony, Josh Murphy, Caelan Doris, Josh van der Flier, Jack Conan.

Replacements: Ed Byrne for Healy, Jamison Gibson-Park for McGrath (both 50 mins), James Tracy for Sheehan, Michael Ala’alatoa for Furlong (both 62 mins), Jamison Gibson-Park for McGrath (57 mins), Ross Byrne for Sexton (68 mins), Devin Toner for Murphy (70 mins), Ciarán Frawley for Henshaw (74 mins), Max Deegan for Doris (77 mins). Sinbinned: Gibson-Park (56-66 mins).

Referee: Karl Dickson (RFU).