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Dublin: 3°C Monday 12 April 2021

Connacht win thriller to secure first away win over Leinster in 19 years

Johnny Sexton went off injured midway through the first half as Andy Friend’s side pulled off a famous victory.

Image: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Leinster 24

Connacht 35

THIS WAS A proper festive treat. Not just in terms of Connacht’s performance – which was superb – but also with regard to the excitement gifted to this contest by Leinster’s second-half comeback, the resilience Connacht showed to see off that threat and then their joy at the final whistle as they greeted their first away win over Leinster since 2002.

To place this result in context, the last time Leinster lost in this competition was in April 2019 and all of a sudden one solitary result has made this Pro14 season interesting. Ulster now have an 10 point lead over Leinster in Conference A. The sides meet next week.

No doubt the first thing Ulster coach, Dan McFarland, will be telling his players this morning is to study the Connacht template; the ferocity of their tackling, their composure under pressure, their refusal to lose. Any team that can replicate all that will have a chance against anyone.

What was so impressive about this win is that Andy Friend really believed his team could beat Leinster this time even if there was little evidence to suggest it would happen. After all, Leinster have not lost in this competition for nearly two years and didn’t lose to anyone in 2020, except Saracens.

In contrast, Connacht came into this game on a three-game losing streak. Their chances appeared as bleak as the weather.

Well, forget all that.

They deserved this, not just because they set the tempo in the first-half, not just because Leinster’s kicking game in this period was terrible, not just because the westerners bossed the breakdown. No, the real takeaway from this victory was the mentality of Friend’s boys.

devin-toner Devin Toner looks to the stars. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Not satisfied with entertaining everyone with their attacking rugby in the first half, they cranked up the tension in the third quarter by allowing Leinster back into it. And then they played with streetwise intelligence to seal the deal in the last 20 minutes, Tom Daly’s 73rd minute try proving to be the clincher.

This really was a stunning performance.

What made it all the more special was the sound of the roars the Connacht players made when they secured small victories; the early Jack Carty tries, the breakdown penalties, an early shove from prop Denis Buckley that should have earned them a scrum penalty.

Could they keep it up? That was the question everyone was asking.

The answer was a resounding yes.

Their first try came after a series of mishaps, Connacht stealing possession at the breakdown, then losing it when Dominic Robertson-McCoy spilled the ball. Suddenly under pressure, Connacht’s line speed saved them from immediate disaster and better than that, yielded the first score of the game, when Carty picked off Ross Molony’s pass before racing to the line.

They were on a roll, winning a breakdown penalty just two-and-a-half minutes later which Carty edged wide from 40 metres.

And still we waited for the turnaround, the inevitable moment when Leinster remembered they were the team who dictated the terms and conditions of these games.

But it never came. A superb break from Caolin Blade, when he emerged from behind the base of a ruck saw him cut through the Leinster defence and set up the play deep inside the Leinster 22. Daly kept the momentum going, before Carty killed off any remaining defence to get his second try.

That bit worked.

johnny-sexton Sexton had to go off on 23 minutes. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

The next didn’t. From the restart, Scott Penny broke clear from the base of a ruck and ran uninterrupted to the line. By now Johnny Sexton was off the field, after failing a HIA, Luke McGrath taking over the kicking responsibilities. From in front of the posts, somehow he missed the conversion.

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So Connacht had a 12-5 lead which soon became 15-5 on 32 minutes when Carty knocked over a penalty from in front of the posts.

On 34 minutes, another penalty, saw another three points for Carty and Connacht. They were 18-5 up and in the market for an upset. They’d get it, helped on their way by a third try, Alex Wootton scoring in the corner, Carty kicking the conversion to make it 25-5 at half-time.

Everything was going their way. Even when Ryan Baird made a devastating break from half-way to set up camp deep inside Connacht territory, somehow Wootton kept him out and somehow Connacht won a penalty at the breakdown.

A half-time rollicking made a difference, Leinster playing with so much more intent after the break, dominating possession initially which led to McGrath sneaking clear from the base of a ruck to get their second try, converted by Jimmy O’Brien.

caolin-blade-makes-a-break Connacht's Caolin Blade makes a break. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Connacht responded again, a third Carty penalty on 47 minutes making it 28-12.

But still we had out doubts, especially when, on 57 minutes the gap was down to 11 following Baird’s try. Then on 61 minutes it was seeming down to four, when replacement David Hawkshaw crossed. That try was ruled out, a key moment in this game.

For all these second-half setbacks, Connacht contributed a relentless rearguard performance. All very knife-edge and thrilling, but victory was never in doubt when Daly broke clear from midfield on 73 minutes, refusing to fall when tackled before he crossed for the bonus point try.

Ed Byrne got a consolation try at the end for Leinster, earning them a bonus point, which may in time prove crucial. For now, though, they were rediscovering what it was like to lose. Not that Connacht care. This was their night. They deserved it.

Leinster scorers:

TriesPenny, McGrath, Baird,Byrne

ConversionsMcGrath (0/1) O’Brien (1/2), Hawkshaw (1/1)

Connacht scorers:

Tries: Carty 2, Wootton, Daly

Conversions: Carty (3/4)

Penalties:  Carty (3/4)

Leinster: Max O’Reilly, Andrew Smith, Jimmy O’Brien (Hugh O’Sullivan ’63), Rory O’Loughlin (David Hawkshaw ’56), Dave Kearney, Johnny Sexton (Liam Turner ’22), Luke McGrath (CAPT), Peter Dooley (Ed Byrne ’51), James Tracy (Sean Cronin ’53), Michael Bent, Ross Molony, Devin Toner (Jack Conan ’53- Will Connors ’56), Ryan Baird, Scott Penny, Dan Leavy (Conan ’60)

Connacht: John Porch, Peter Sullivan (Ben O’Donnell ’60), Sammy Arnold, Tom Daly, Alex Wootton (Diarmuid Kilgallen ’75), Jack Carty, Caolin Blade (C Reilly ’75), Denis Buckley (Matthew Burke ’68), Shane Delahunt (Jonny Murphy ’69), Dominic Robertson-McCoy (C Kenny ’62), Gavin Thornbury (Roux ’73), Quinn Roux (Ultan Dillane ’63), Eoghan Masterson (Cian Prendergast ’68), Conor Oliver, Sean Masterson.

Referee: Chris Busby [IRFU]. 

About the author:

Garry Doyle

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