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Lam's brilliant Connacht earn first-ever trophy with stunning win over Leinster

The western province were sensational in the Pro12 final at Murrayfield.

Connacht 20

Leinster 10

Murray Kinsella reports from Murrayfield

CONNACHT COULDN’T HAVE secured their first-ever trophy in a more convincing and joyous fashion than this.

Three superb tries, eight linebreaks, multiple stunning offloads and a muscular defence; Leinster couldn’t live with Pat Lam’s brilliant band of skillful brothers.

Tiernan O'Halloran celebrates his try with Robbie Henshaw Robbie Henshaw celebrates Connacht's opening score with Tiernan O'Halloran. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Leinster were bystanders much of the time in this final, having come into the game as favourites. Connacht stayed true to the qualities that helped them to reach this point, and made history as a result.

With a core of young players driving this group, we may only be witnessing the beginning of Connacht’s story. If this is a taste of more to come, we are in for one hell of a ride.

For now, Connacht and their supporters will relish every second of being on top. They have been the best side over the course of the Pro12 season, even if Leinster topped the table.

The most diehard Leinster supporter couldn’t argue with the outcome of this final and it was encouraging to see Connacht’s ambitious attacking approach rewarded with that first-ever trophy, lifted by John Muldoon after his 275th appearance for the westerners.

Connacht’s approach will surely be an inspiration to sides everywhere, as their width and willingness to run from anywhere on the pitch yielded consistently excellent and exciting results.

Every one of Connacht’s players was impressive in Murrayfield, with Bundee Aki in turbo mode, out-half AJ MacGinty cool under pressure, Robbie Henshaw muscular and aggressive, Aly Muldowney excellent on the ball and Tom McCartney showcasing all of his skills.

The back three of Tiernan O’Halloran, Niyi Adeolokun and Matt Healy dazzled their highly-decorated counterparts and suggested Joe Schmidt has erred with his squad selection for the South Africa tour.

Muldoon was, rather fittingly, named man of the match as he finally won a trophy with Connacht in his 13th season with the province. No one was more deserving of the recognition.

Matt Healy celebrates scoring his sides third try Matt Healy was brilliant for Connacht yet again.

Leo Cullen’s Leinster will be devastated with their performance, with consistent errors stymying any real chance at a comeback victory after Connacht’s whirlwind start.

Leinster did have some minor success under Johnny Sexton’s kicking game early on, but Connacht looked unsurprisingly ready to run at space wherever it was available, stretching Leinster with their width.

Healy fired a warning shot when released up the left to sprint into Leinster’s half, opting to chip ahead instead of passing back to his inside but forcing the covering Luke Fitzgerald into touch.

That set the tone and then Connacht stunned Cullen’s men in the 13th minute. Healy kick-started the score, bursting up the middle of the pitch and into the Leinster half again on the counter-attack.

Tighthead prop Finlay Bealham slotted into scrum-half to ensure rapid service out to the left and quick hands presented Tiernan O’Halloran with time on the ball. His pace took him outside Jamie Heaslip and into a two-on-one against Rob Kearney, with Henshaw in support on the left touchline.

O’Halloran sold Kearney to the outside and burst inside the floundering Ireland fullback to scorch clear and finish a wonderful score. MacGinty slotted the conversion with composure, something he also consistently showed in a big defensive performance.

Leinster looked rattled and Rob Kearney knocked-on a simple Connacht grubber just minutes later to add to the pressure. Lam’s men continued to come at the favourites, a nice switch play between Aki and Adeolokun almost freeing the wing only for Jack McGrath to make a brilliant scrag tackle.

The Nigerian wing was only getting started, however. With 22 minutes played he struck. Henshaw made the initial inroads in midfield, showing good footwork and power before transferring the ball to O’Halloran, who found Aki, who threw a loose offload to Marmion.

The scrum-half located Adeolokun out on the right wing and the former Trinity flyer chipped over the head of his man, Fitzgerald, and then burned past the sweeping Eoin Reddan to gather the ball and gleefully dive over. MacGinty was wide with his conversion effort, but Connacht were rampant.

They went 15-0 ahead before the half-hour mark after a huge carry from Ultan Dillane, boshing Dave Kearney into the ground and hammering into Rob, helped them into a promising position only for Leinster to infringe at ruck time.

Even before the Dillane steamroll, Henshaw had released Adeolokun up the right with a deft one-handed offload. MacGinty did the scoring for a lead Connacht held into the half-time break.

Niyi Adeolokun beats Eoin Reddan to score a try Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Leinster’s woes were self-inflicted to a large degree as their handling in the first half continually let them down.

Their simple attacking shape posed little threat to Connacht, while Aki’s thundering hit on Sexton – who had just been treated for a shoulder injury – was one of the highlights of the game. Meanwhile, the Leinster lineout was struggling badly without Devin Toner.

Leinster opted for two changes in the front row inside the opening two minutes of the second half, with Tadhg Furlong and Sean Croning making an instant impact to help win a scrum penalty that Sexton kicked for 15-3.

MacGinty struck the ball poorly off the tee in the 47th minute after Jordi Murphy failed to roll away, but Connacht’s attack continued to look dangerous.

Hooker Tom McCartney made a searing break through Leinster’s midfield defence soon after, rounding Luke Fitzgerald with impressive ease and then only failing to finish the job due to an outstanding tackle from behind by Sexton, forcing the hold-up.

Leinster appeared to have lifted the pressure after the subsequent scrum, when McGrath levelled Healy to invite a counter-ruck turnover, but replacement Sean O’Brien – on for Eoin McKeon at half-time – helped Connacht to a turnover of their own to initiate a lengthy attack in the Leinster 22.

Lam’s men were ultra patient, rejecting the opportunity to take a drop goal and instead biding their time until the space showed itself. That happened when Henshaw switched play from right to left behind a ruck and found MacGinty with a long pass.

 

Bundee Aki and Richard Strauss Source: James Crombie/INPHO

The USA out-half slipped a delightful grubber behind Leinster for left wing Healy to burst onto and score, ensuring each of Connacht’s back three all dotted down.

Having had a potential Zane Kirchner score ruled out for a forward pass by Sexton, Leinster did their best to shake the Connacht composure with a 67th-minute try by replacement hooker Sean Cronin out on the right, converted by Sexton. That score somewhat controversially came with O’Halloran down injured with a head injury.

Against the 14 defenders, Leinster swept the ball from left to right and Cronin beat Connacht sub Peter Robb to the tryline.

Connacht, however, showed steel in the closing 10 minutes to put a convincing finishing impression on their historic achievement.

Connacht scorers:

Tries: Tiernan O’Halloran, Niyi Adeolokun, Matt Healy

Conversions: AJ MacGinty [1 from 3]

Penalties: AJ MacGinty [1 from 2]

Leinster scorers:

Tries: Sean Cronin

Conversions: Johnny Sexton [1 from 1]

Penalties: Johnny Sexton [1 from 1]

CONNACHT: Tiernan O’Halloran (Shane O’Leary ’69); Niyi Adeolokun, Robbie Henshaw, Bundee Aki, Matt Healy; AJ MacGinty, Kieran Marmion (John Cooney ’61 (Peter Robb ’66)); Ronan Loughney (Rodney Ah You ’69), Tom McCartney (Dave Heffernan ’72), Finlay Bealham; Ultan Dillane (Andrew Browne ’62), Aly Muldowney; Eoin McKeon (Sean O’Brien ‘HT), Jake Heenan, John Muldoon (captain).

Replacements not used: JP Cooney.

LEINSTER: Rob Kearney (Zane Kirchner ’61); Dave Kearney (Ian Madigan ’76); Garry Ringrose, Ben Te’o, Luke Fitzgerald; Jonathan Sexton, Eoin Reddan (Luke McGrath ’58); Jack McGrath (Peter Dooley ’72), Richardt Strauss (Sean Cronin ’42), Mike Ross (Tadhg Furlong ’42); Ross Molony (Jack Conan ’62), Mick Kearney (Hayden Triggs ’17); Rhys Ruddock, Jordi Murphy, Jamie Heaslip (captain).

Referee: Nigel Owens [WRU].

Official attendance: 34,550.

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About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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