Connacht’s unlikely journey gains momentum as Leinster hit brick wall
Pat Lam’s men show bravery in tackle and in attack to increase lead at top of Pro12
Niyi Adeolokun and James Connolly celebrate after the Connacht’s win over Leinster. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho
Connacht 7 Leinster 6
Connacht’s slim 7-0 lead turning into the fierce wind whipping in off the Bohermore end looked an even flimsier buffer when Ian Madigan trimmed it by three points within three minutes of the restart. For all the manifest improvements in their quality and squad depth, from there on, in time-honoured fashion, they had to dig deep. This was old school.
Admittedly there was more to it than tackling themselves to a standstill. This sixth Guinness Pro12 League win in a row came down to one last act of defiance as the Connacht forwards withheld a Leinster scrum which had been infused with half the starting Irish pack.
But once Nigel Owens wasn’t for giving Leinster a penalty from two concerted shunts and ordered Eoin Reddan to play the ball, somehow you knew a relatively blunt Leinster weren’t going to break through. They had never looked like doing so all evening.
Pounce and gobble
Dominic Ryan came charging into contact, man of the match Eoin McKeon (a late replacement for Jake Heenan) made his 23rd tackle of the match, and Bundee Aki did enough to dislodge the ball before being cleared out for John Muldoon to pounce and gobble the game’s final turnover.
The roar that followed Caolin Blade kicking the ball dead was the apex of a thunderous night.
Admittedly, the bravery extended beyond the physical. They had the courage, as Pat Lam had asked of them, to back their skills. With and against the wind, Connacht had played with more ambition and variety. Forwards intermingled with backs in what has become their trademark style, as they used the width of the pitch and trucked it up, be it the ever-willing Aly Muldowney, McKeon or John Muldoon, or the all-action, leg-pumping, chest- thumping, big-hitting human ball of energy that is, needless to say, the phenomenal Bundee Aki.
Still, they had to dig deep. “Rugby’s more than a game. It’s about life. You build relationships, you go through things together and you build and create memories,” said Lam.
The Connacht coach had also asked his players if they’d rather run or tackle. “A lot of them prefer to run and so they just keep working off the ball and we went through lots of periods of phases into a strong wind.
“Of course we’d have liked more points having played with the wind. But that emphasised more that we had to look after the ball and keep the ball. The big one was discipline. A penalty meant 60 metres back to our end or points.
“They got two of them but generally it was about playing our game. The guys can pull it off. We’re the team that throws the most passes in a game. All these guys are getting more and more comfortable on their skill level and their understanding of each other. Again, it’s not perfect but that was some great stuff in pretty tough conditions.”
On a night when it was well nigh impossible to kick into the wind, it was pretty tricky for handling too, and as usual more so for the team with the wind at their backs. So it was that Leinster effectively recycled the ball and kept possession for 63 per cent of the first-half, a figure Connacht slightly bettered in the second-half.
There was a degree of running down the clock by both of them into the wind, but there was generally a greater sense of ambition in Connacht’s running game. They passed the ball through more hands and varied their point of engagement. By contrast, Leinster set narrower, one-off targets, seemingly more intent on bullying Connacht.
Leinster’s defence, so well honed by Kurt McQuilkin, largely kept them in the game and was mostly responsible for the moments or periods when they had the ascendancy.
That said, they met their match in Aki, who set the tone with a couple of earth-shaking hits on Josh van der Flier.
Aki and Ben Te’o were spoken to at length early on by Nigel Owens after one early fracas, but carried on trucking it up and stopping everything in their way, and each had a couple of willing young accomplices in ex-Blackrock midfield team-mates Peter Robb and Garry Ringrose.
But Connacht had more line breaks, more passes, more rucks and basically more ambition. Their try exemplified this. Tiernan O’Halloran, true to his pre-match word, counter-attacked when fed by Robb and offloaded in the tackle to AJ MacGinty, who was stopped unceremoniously by Isa Nacewa amid howls for a high hit.
But, four phases and 13 passes later, having gone wide left and wide right to free Niyi Adeolokun on the wing, his chip over Nacewa saw Kieron Marmion beat Luke McGrath to the touchdown.
Such ambition and width, and interlinking between backs and forwards, was beyond Leinster, who admittedly had been more discommoded by the Six Nations and were thus always likely to lack some degree of cohesion on welcoming their front-liners back. But tellingly also, it came from one of a couple of box-kicks by McGrath which had been held up by the wind. That ploy was ignored by Marmion and co in favour of a passing game.
Owens also let the game flow in his own masterful way; witness his 5-4 penalty count in Leinster’s favour. His assistants could have done more.
On a rare old weekend indeed, this felt fairly seismic.
Scoring sequence: 14 mins Marmion try, McGinty con 7-0; (half-time 7-0); 42 mins Madigan pen 7-3; 63 mins Madigan pen 7-6.
CONNACHT: Tiernan O’Halloran; Niyi Adeolokun, Bundee Aki, Peter Robb, Matt Healy; AJ MacGinty, Kieran Marmion; Denis Buckley, Tom McCartney, Nathan White, Quinn Roux, Aly Muldowney, Sean O’Brien, Eoin McKeon, John Muldoon (capt). Replacements: Finlay Bealham for White (6 mins), Robbie Henshaw for Robb (48 mins), Andrew Browne for Roux (51 mins), Shane O’Leary for McGinty (61 mins), James Connolly for O’Brien (66 mins), Caolin Blade for O’Halloran (66-71 mins) and for Marmion (75 mins), Dave Heffernan for McCartney, Ronan Loughney for (both 70 mins).
LEINSTER: Isa Nacewa (capt); Fergus McFadden, Garry Ringrose, Ben Te’o, Luke Fitzgerald; Ian Madigan, Luke McGrath; Cian Healy, Richardt Strauss, Tadhg Furlong, Ross Molony, Hayden Triggs, Dominic Ryan, Josh van der Flier, Rhys Ruddock. Replacements: Zane Kirchner for Fitzgerald (38 mins), Jack McGrath for Healy (47 mins), Sean Cronin for Strauss (51 mins), Mike Ross for Furlong, Devin Toner for Triggs, Eoin Reddan for McGrath (all 61 mins), Jamie Heaslip for Ruddock (66 mins). Not used: Noel Reid.
Referee: Nigel Owens (Wales).