Gerry Thornley: Connacht roar clear of Leinster on and off park

Pat Lam’s side go four points clear at the top on memorable night at Sportsground

Connacht 7 Leinster 6

The Sportsground has possibly never heard a roar like the one which greeted Caolin Blade kicking the ball dead from his own in-goal area. The 80 minutes were up and the game was up for Leinster. Connacht had withstood a late onslaught from a Leinster team buttressed by their heavyweight bench to win this Guinness Pro 12 top-of-the-table shoot-out, prompting raucous celebrations.

“We are top of the League,” chanted the Connacht fans at the finish. And so they are, entirely on merit.

In the end, their astonishing spirit, work-rate and defensive resilience had earned, in every sense, as big a win as the province has perhaps ever known. But it was their greater ambition and attacking edge which had earned them their slim 7-0 lead to defend into the second-half wind.


By contrast, typical of their season, Leinster’s superb defence had kept them in the game but ultimately their attack couldn’t win it for them.

Connacht kept the ball longer, with and into the wind, working their socks off to recycle the ball even if behind the gainline, and just kept coming. They had most of the game's standout performers, not least in their hard-working backrow of John Muldoon, Sean O'Brien and man of the match Eoin McKeon, the livewire Kieran Marmion and, as ever, the heart-on-sleeve, leg-pumping Bundee Aki.

On a typically wild night in the west, heavy showers intermingled with low-lying sunshine – sometimes simultaneously – amid a strong gale blowing in, as ever, from the Bohermore end.

Leinster gave Connacht first use of it, mindful of their heavyweight bench to spring into action.

Yet it was a relatively fluid game, sympathetically refereed by Nigel Owens who made typically scant use of his whistle, in which both sides sought to keep the ball in hand. A pity his assistants on the line gave him so little assistance, seemingly seeing nothing.

The intensity also befitted the top-of-the-table occasion, with massive physicality in contact. The tone was set and maintained as much by two ‘blow-ins’ as the many indigenous players, with Aki and Ben Te’o going to war virtually from the off.

Largely declining to put boot to ball even with the wind behind them in the first half, Connacht were rewarded with a well-worked try and a deserved 7-0 lead, although it looked insufficient given the elements and the visitors’ bench. Connacht’s approach was ambitious and true to type, but they might have made more use of the wind. Admittedly, the wind can carry the ball dead, but apart from a couple of relieving kicks off turnovers, one could only recall one strategic kick apiece by AJ MacGinty and Tiernan O’Halloran.

Leinster's defence, especially into the strong wind, was generally solid, and Richardt Strauss twice relieved the strain with trademark poaches. Whereas kicking into the wind was well nigh impossible, it is easier to pass into the wind, and while Connacht made more handling errors, as the half wore on, the visitors also became more efficient at retaining possession.

A little fittingly, just as the Leinster players went into their pre-match huddle – presumably for warmth – a pre-match blizzard swept downfield. One or both events had a galvanising effect on those congregated in the Clan Terrace, who launched into chants of “Conn-acht”. Whereupon the sun came out, a rainbow arced over one corner of the ground, and the terraces and additional seating behind either end of the ground filled out.

Connacht soon had Leinster on the back foot, Marmion cleverly giving McKeon a run up the blindside before Connacht swept it across the line.

A bust-up prompted Owens to give the warring antipodean centres and from Aki's next carry, Te'o appeared to stop, if only temporarily, with a no-arms tackle which went unpunished. However, three early handling errors stymied Connacht's early momentum.

In the circumstances, an old-fashioned up-and-under might have been an idea as well as a traditional welcoming, but instead Connacht went back and forth through nine phases before Strauss poached for a turnover.

Then, when Leinster went through the phases, Josh van der Flier was twice met with thunderous chest-on-chest hits by Aki, to thunderous roars from the home crowd, as was Te’o by O’Brien, the second forcing a turnover.

Matt Healy was seeing plenty of ball, but he too lost it in contact when hit by Isa Nacewa. Nonetheless, O'Halloran was true to his midweek word to counter-attack at every available opportunity, and when fed by Peter Robb, making an impressive start to his first league start, from an Ian Madigan up-and-under, O'Halloran ran and offloaded to MacGinty.

The outhalf appeared to be hit too high by Nacewa, but in any case Connacht went left and back right, when quick hands by Aki and O'Halloran released Niyi Adeolokun. The winger kicked over Nacewa infield, where Marmion showed blinding pace to beat his counterpart Luke McGrath to the touchdown just before the dead ball line. Owens, correctly, immediately awarded the try without recourse to the TMO and MacGinty landed a fine conversion for a 7-0 lead.

Connacht had lost Nathan White early on, albeit to be replaced by another international in the once-capped Finlay Bealham, and from a rock solid scrum, MacGinty pegged Leinster back with a big touchfinder. When Luke Fitzgerald kicked downfield, O'Halloran changed things up by hoofing the ball, wind-assisted, for a one-bounce 50-metre touchfinder.

Fully 25 minutes had elapsed when Owens awarded the game’s first full penalty against Connacht for holding on, although it should have been a Connacht penalty when McGrath’s box kick again stalled above him in the wind and was contested by a bunch of Leinster players who thus had to be offside.

Moments after a lineout steal by Aly Muldowney and relieving kick by Marmion, and after Fergus McFadden appeared to go off his feet, Owens awarded Connacht their first full penalty of the match when penalising Cian Healy for holding on. That was earned by Denis Buckley, but even with the wind, MacGinty was well short from about 47 metres.

Finally, the game drew breath and calmed down, during which time the desperately unfortunate Fitzgerald gingerly left the fray 37 minutes into his latest comeback with what looked a shoulder injury. By then too, Leinster had somewhat subdued the home crowd by retaining the ball through multiple phases and were content to run down the clock to half-time when McGrath kicked the ball in to the main stand.

Connacht were buoyed by a big carry by Aki upon the resumption, whereupon McKeon was penalised for not releasing and Madigan opened Leinster’s account from 35 metres. It was looking like a long 38 minutes in front of the home team.

Healy, as injury cursed as Fitzgerald of late, soon departed with what looked like a back complaint, and Leinster were not able to get their hands on the ball. When they did, Zane Kirchener kicked turnover ball downfield from inside his own half, only for the ball to roll inexorably dead.

Robbie Henshaw was thus introduced for Robb, who had an impressive full debut, and was immediately into the action with a strong carry. But after Nacewa was penalised for a high tackle on Adeolokun after a fine spell of running and passing by the likes of Buckley, Muldoon and Aki, Connacht's lifters didn't get Muldoon sufficiently into the air to claim the throw and thus set-up the attacking maul.

Helped by Marmion pinching Leinster scrum ball from under McGrath’s nose, Connacht retained possession through innumerable tackles in their own without going anywhere as Leinster could afford to fan out and bring Nacewa into the defensive line with good effect.

Shortly after the introduction of Mike Ross, Devin Toner and Eoin Reddan, the strengthened Leinster scrum made an immediate impact after a costly knock-on by MacGinty, who was promptly receiving an ice pack too his shoulder when replaced by Shane O'Leary. From the ensuing scrum penalty, Madigan trimmed Connacht's leeway to a point.

Leinster were fortunate to only concede a scrum when Nacewa knocked on one-handed, although soon after their scrum was surprisingly penalised on their own put-in entering the last 10 minutes. Connacht again to continued to keep the ball through the phases, but again Leinster’s line speed and tackle execution was superb until Van der Flier won a turnover penalty.

Leinster finally ran onto the ball hard and with intent, forcing two interminable, re-set scrums, but Connacht were not for buckling and when Dominic Ryan had the last of many carries, it appeared that Aki pilfered the final turnover.

Cue the raucous celebrations as the Connacht acknowledged their supporters on both sides of the pitch. A famous night.

SCORING SEQUENCE: 14 mins: Marmion try, MacGinty con 7-0; (half-time 7-0); 42 : Madigan pen 7-3; 63: 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), Dave Heffernan for McCartney, Ronan Loughney for (both 70 mins), Caolin Blade for O'Halloran (66-71 mins) and for Marmion (75 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).

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley is Rugby Correspondent of The Irish Times