Connacht save their best for last to kickoff Pro12 party

Fields of Athenry rings around Murrayfield as Pat Lam’s team claim first title in first final

Connacht 20 Leinster 10

The neat double score line scarcely tells the half of it. Champions and no doubt about it. For all those present of a green hue this day of days will be one to tell the grandchildren about. Connacht had actually saved their best for last. Pat Lam for Taoiseach. The west will be awake for weeks.

The most memorable finale to a Pro12 season since the League's inception, which itself culminated in Leinster's stunning 2001 win over Munster at Lansdowne Road with 14 men, had its most unforgettable final.

Connacht didn’t just topple the old order, they practically ransacked Murrayfield, irreverently filleting Leinster with a brilliant brand of rugby befitting any final anywhere, anytime.


Having withstood an early blast of recycling from Leinster, Connacht quickly settled into their running rhythm and never wavered in their belief or ambition. As ever, if a player became a little isolated or trapped behind the gain line, the carrier worked hard in contact and those nearest were quick to arrive at the contact zone and muscularly move any player in white away from the ball with the clear-out.

On Murrayfield’s wide open confines, where they had recorded a bonus point win in February over Edinburgh, Connacht consistently used the full width of the pitch to stretch Leinster’s defence. As with their confidence on the ball and wide running game, their counter-attacking was way more advanced too.

Connacht made the pitch look big.

Every time Niyi Adeolokun, Matt Healy or Tiernan O'Halloran touched the ball there was a buzz of anticipation amongst the Connacht crowd, and with good reason. The Connacht back three, none of whom have been picked for the South African tour, had 19 League tries this season going into this game. Leinster's back three, all of whom are going to South Africa, had just two. Fittingly, the Connacht trio with brio finished it with one more apiece as they shared Connacht's three tries.

Up front, Ultan Dillane, that wonderful servant John Muldoon, in his 275th match for his native province, and co drew the lines in the sand. Dillane threw himself into the fray and anything in white, whether with the ball or without it, in a monumental hour on the pitch.

At the end, Muldoon promised “one hell of a party”.

Their Kiwi influence was strong, with the increasingly influential Tom McCartney having a wonderful game, Jake Heenan hugely effective (especially in defence) and Bundee Aki cleverly used more for his distribution and as a decoy as Connacht varied their point of attack.

Kieran Marmion was as livewire as ever in his service and sniping, AJ MacGinty really has been a one-season wonder and Robbie Henshaw signed off in the grand manner with big carries, hits, clear-outs and offloads. People will be asking now more than ever why he's crossing this particular Connacht-Leinster divide.

It was a wonderfully heady brew. Leinster had their moments but couldn't replicate the one-off intensity and accuracy of their semi-final win over Ulster. They tried drifting, they tried shooting up, but the more they upped their line speed, the more Connacht players did for them with their footwork or passing. And, as ever, the number on the back was irrelevant.

The crowd, which can’t have been too far off 30,000, was bedecked in sunshine and, amid an atmosphere akin to a summer festival, appeared to be split more or less evenly in green or blue. But from almost beginning to end, and almost without interruption, it was the green flags fluttering and the Connacht fans cheering.

The sea of green and wall of noise which greeted the arrival of the Connacht squad through the fans village, fittingly located outside the West Stand, had to be seen and heard to be believed.

Dave Kearney reclaimed Johnny Sexton’s reverse kick-off after Healy had initially palmed it backwards for Leinster to go through the phases. A Ross Molony knock-on led to a turnover but when Connacht, true to type, went wide right and then wide left, similarly Muldoon fumbled.

Undeterred, the Green Army went into song as The Fields quickly echoed around the ground. When Dave Kearney reclaimed another contestable kick on the ground, Kieran Marmion made a valuable tackle

Connacht made the first serious inroads when Connacht went wide left off a line-out steal by Eoin McKeon, and Henshaw used his footwork to straighten the line and move the ball on to O’Halloran. His pace, straight line and pass release Healy, who chipped Rob Kearney before Leinster were indebted to the covering of Luke Fitzgerald.

Neither side wanted to put the ball off the pitch, and Leinster’s response when Muldoon fumbled again was to go wide right and run it from deep to ensure another exhaustive spell of ball in play.

Connacht’s more developed counter attacking game and sharper cutting edge going into the game then manifested itself thrillingly in the 13th minute. Eoin Reddan’s box kick found Healy in plenty of space and when that happens with any of the Connacht back, their first instinct is always the same. Healy countered, his footwork and strength beating three men. From a quick recycle, Aki transferred the ball to O’Halloran, giving him a two-on-one with Healy on his outside. O’Halloran feinted to pass and skinned Rob Kearney on his outside to score virtually untouched form 30 metres as this time Fitzgerald couldn’t make it across.

The Green Army were ecstatic. AJ MacGinty made it 7-0.

Infused with even more self-belief, Connacht now really let it rip. Adeolokun made two big carries, each time threatening to break clear, before Henshaw’s grubber to a vacant left corner was too strong even for the lightening quick Healy. Adeolokun was nearly away again after Healy’s quick long pass infield enabled McGinty to then transfer the counter-attack wide right to Aki.

But there was no denying Adeolokun next time around. A stunning sequence of offloading by Henshaw, who was on fire, O’Halloran (after an outrageous feint to kick) and Aki before Marmion fed Adeolokun off the deck. The Nigerian-born ex-Trinity flyer chipped Fitzgerald then having the wit and skill to kick the ball on under pressure from Reddan as it landed, before gathering and sliding over the line in one movement for a wonderfully opportunistic try.

Connacht weren’t for stopping, or even slowing down, now. All the while, Nigel Owens let it flow. Not a penalty in the first 25 minutes before Leinster were so offside that not even Owens could overlook. This was a thrillingly earned three-pointer too, Henshaw spinning out of Ben Te’o’s attempted big hit and offloading to Adelokun for another run on the right wing, before the green wave went wide left for Dillane to bounce Dave Kearney on the left wing. The Connacht crowd loved that, and when Aki made a break up the middle, the ensuring offside off the recycle enabled MacGinty to make it 15-0. Fully merited too.

Leinster, gasping air in defence, did bring a scrum, but little else, and when finally winning some possession this merely underlined how comparatively under-developed their running game is. Aki smashed Sexton and the ball in one tackle and the half ended with Fitzgerald failing to hold onto a pass by Te’o after a Sexton wraparound, and then Strauss fumbled a pass by Fitzgerald.

In that first half Connacht had made five clean line breaks to none and had missed just three tackles, compared to 18 by Leinster.

Strangely, within two minutes of the restart, a hangdog Richardt Strauss and Mike Ross were given the shepherd’s hook to be replaced by the more dynamic Sean Cronin and Tadhg Furlong. It didn’t stop their scrum supremacy, Heaslip again keeping the ball at the base to win the penalty with which Sexton finally opened Leinster’s account.

Back came Leinster, in what felt like a significant phase, through prolonged spells or recycling and hard running, but which ended when Muldoon targeted the ball in tackling Haydne Triggs and forced a spillage. Marmion broke brilliantly from deep and Muldoon cleared the ball away for Dillane and Muldowney to shift the ball on to O’Halloran.

A couple of phases later McCartney stepped superbly out of the tackle from Muldowney’s quick transfer, then used his footwork to stand up Fitzgerald and beat him only for Sexton’s excellent covering tackle to prevent the try.

But Connacht were not to be denied, twice patiently going through phases and not panicking even when being stopped and looking a little static. And as Connacht have demonstrated better than any team in this League, there’s always space on a rugby pitch. So MacGinty feinted to pass and instead slid a delicious grubber into space off his left foot for Healy to gather and score untouched. MacGinty’s conversion hit the upright, but it was the ultimate counter punch to Leinster’s attempted recovery and left them a little pole-axed.

Leinster were a tad unlucky when Sexton’s pass to Te’o, which the centre gathered off the deck, was adjudged forward - although that looked to be the case initially, replays were less conclusive - before Zane Kirchner finished smartly in the corner.

But soon John Cooney, on for Marmion, left the field with a shoulder injury, meaning Healy went in to his old position of scrum-half and then play continued as O’Halloran was left flattened and receiving attention from four medics. Play continued to increasing boos from the Connacht supporters, which reached another level as Leinster applied some continuity and Cronin ran in the try. Sexton also converted to make it 20-10 as O’Halloran was helped off for a head injury assessment, although he soon returned.

But that was it for Leinster, who started their season with an opening day 16-9 League defeat in Meggetland, thus bookending their competitive season with defeats in Edinburgh. This filleting by their lone-time poor relations hurt considerably more. The clock counted down with Connacht back in the ascendancy and the The Fields of Athenry ringing around a field that had become a little part of Connacht for the day.

Scoring sequence: 13 mins O’Halloran try, McGinty con 7-0; 22 mins Adeolokun try 12-0; 28 mins McGinty pen 15-0; (half-time 15-0); 43 mins Sexton pen 15-3; 57 mins Healy try 20-3; 68 mins Cronin try, Sexton con 20-10;

CONNACHT: Tiernan O'Halloran; Niyi Adeolokun, Robbie Henshaw, Bundee Aki, Matt Healy; AJ MacGinty, Kieran Marmion; Ronan Loughney, Tom McCartney, Finlay Bealham, Ultan Dillane, Aly Muldowney, Eoin McKeon, Jake Heenan, John Muldoon (capt).

Replacements: Sean O’Brien for McKeon (half-time), John Cooney for Marmion (61 mins), Andrew Browne for Dillane (62 mins), Peter Robb for John Cooney (66 mins), Rodney Ah You for Llughney (68 mins), Shane O’Leary for O’Halloran (69-72 mins), Dave Heffernan for McCartney (74 mins).

Not used: JP Cooney,

LEINSTER: Rob Kearney; Dave Kearney, Garry Ringrose, Ben Te'o, Luke Fitzgerald; Jonathan Sexton, Eoin Reddan; Jack McGrath, Richardt Strauss, Mike Ross, Ross Molony, Mick Kearney, Rhys Ruddock, Jordi Murphy, Jamie Heaslip (capt).

Replacements: Hayden Triggs for M Kearney (17 mins), Sean Cronin for Strauss, Tadhg Furlong for Ross (both 42 mins), Luke McGrath for Reddan (58 mins), Zane Kirchner for Rob Kearney (61 mins), Jack Conan for Moloney (64 mins), Peter Dooley for McGrath (73 mins), Ian Madigan for Dave Kearney (76 mins).

Referee: Nigel Owens (Wales)

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley is Rugby Correspondent of The Irish Times