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Dublin: 10°C Saturday 17 April 2021
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'I've never seen Jack kick like that - it was unbelievable'

Connacht’s historic win over Leinster on Saturday came down to the brilliance of Jack Carty and the resilience of a team who are now used to operating at the top of the league.

Carty celebrates Connacht's win.
Carty celebrates Connacht's win.
Image: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

THEY WERE SECOND last at the end of the 2004/05 season, the same position they finished a year later. By the time the RaboDirect had been renamed the Magners League, Connacht were coming to the end of their second-worst-team-in-the-league lease, ending that 2006-07 campaign in 10th.

Then came 2007/08 and a slight twist in the plot. This time they were bottom of the pile.

2008/09 – same story.

2009/10 – no change.

It wasn’t until the following season and the arrival of a couple of Italian teams that they finally began to move up the table.

So, when you strip away all the headline stats from Saturday’s 35-24 victory – their first win away to Leinster since 2002; first win in the RDS, period; second win over Leinster since 1955, first team to beat Leinster in the Pro14 since 2019 – another fact is worth examining.

For the third year in a row now, Connacht are primed to qualify for the Champions Cup. Second in Conference B, they’ll move top if they win their next three games.

That’s a legacy of Andy Friend’s tenure. If Pat Lam brought them glory; Friend has gifted them a bit of old-fashioned consistency. Whereas once consistency was a nicer way of saying they could be relied upon to finish at the wrong end of the table; now they’re enjoying the view from loftier heights.

In hindsight, Saturday’s win was coming. Three weeks ago, they came within a few inches of beating Racing; two weeks ago, they made one stupid error after another against Bristol and still could have won; last week, against Ulster, they should have won.

This time they did. Cullen’s Cubs were bullied in the backline; the sight of Tom Daly running to the line with would-be Leinster tacklers falling off him the perfect metaphor to sum up this game.   

“You know when you come up here that you respect Leinster, but you’re not going to offer them respect by letting them play football,” said Friend afterwards.

That was why they played with such intent, Jack Carty’s early intercept try setting the tone for the night. “Our belief grew from there,” said Friend.

So did their lead, 20 points separating these teams at half-time, a gap that was cut to 11 by the time Dave Hawkshaw had a try disallowed nearing the end of the third quarter. That was the turning point, that and this dogged refusal of theirs to lose. “At half-time, we did say, ‘Don’t try and defend this lead’.

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“In the first 15-20 minutes of the second half we went hard at them but we probably got a little bit eager and piggy-backed them up the field a little bit with a few penalties that gave them field position, because the only time they were getting field position was off that.

“So what was pleasing was that things calmed down in the aftermath of the disallowed try probably. The boys showed they were good enough to bring it home, which was pleasing.”

So too is the Conference B table. Munster have an eight-point gap to Connacht but that can change over the next month when Connacht play three games to Munster’s two. Add in the fact that Friend is likely to lose fewer players than most other teams during the Six Nations and you can make a case for them reaching this year’s Pro14 final.

But if that is to happen then they need to reproduce their form from Saturday. Beating Goliath is one thing; now it’s Goliath’s next-door neighbour.

jack-carty-scores-a-try Jack Carty scores a try for Connacht. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

“I’d love to find a formula that says that every time you turn up, you produce a performance like we did on Saturday,” says Friend, “but I’ve been doing this for 26 years now and I continue to search for it.

“What I am pleased for the players is that we sometimes get challenged about do we deserve to be out there on the same field as some of these big European sides and the answer there on Saturday night is emphatically yes, yes we do.”

For Jack Carty, bigger fields await. His 25 points on Saturday equalled the biggest tally any player has scored against Leinster in the professional era and with Johnny Sexton going off with a HIA, we got a glimpse of the future. Soon, Sexton will be too old, for now Ben Healy is too young, Joey Carbery too injured. Carty has to be considered for some proper game-time in the Six Nations.

“He was brilliant,” said Friend. “During the warm up, I turned to Jack Birtwhistle who is our performance coach and does a lot of work with Jack and said ‘I’ve never seen Jack Carty kick like this, it’s unbelievable’.

“So, you knew there was confidence there.

“It’s been a tricky year for him, so for him to come out at the RDS and put out a performance like that against Europe’s best is very, very pleasing.”

About the author:

Garry Doyle

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