TRIES FROM ZANE Kirchner and Shane Jennings helped Leinster to a 21-11 win over Connacht at the RDS to keep Matt O’Connor’s side firmly in contention in the play-off positions.
Connacht were willing in the collisions, but ultimately pre-match expectations that the westerners would cause an upset against an out-of-form Leinster never transpired.
That said, there were shaky moments late on as George Naoupu’s maul try brought Connacht back to within three points. Kirchner’s five-pointer ensured any idea of a late smash and grab were quashed almost instantaneously though.
Noel Reid was man of the match for Leinster, delivering a creative performance in the 12 shirt, but proceedings were far from free-flowing in Dublin. A shoulder injury to the returning Kevin McLaughlin was a blot on the evening for O’Connor’s men.
Connacht had finished the first half in the ascendancy to draw themselves to within two points at 8-6. Jack Carty was the source of those six points, knocking over two penalties from three, although Lam’s side were frustrated not to take their one big try-scoring chance.
That came in the closing minutes of the half, as Connacht followed up some narrow pummeling of the Leinster tryline by sending a cross-field kick out to Danie Poolman on the right.
Carty’s low, skidding kick landed and bounced in Leinster’s in-goal area, and though Poolman tiptoed delicately to catch and touch down, TMO Marshall Kilgore found him to have had a foot out of play.
Connacht came again before the break though, Carty making a searing break and passing inside to the supporting Kieran Marmion, who was hauled down. The western province reverted to their pick and jams to draw Tadhg Furlong into a penalty concession.
Referee Ian Davies sent the Leinster tighthead to the bin for slowing Connacht’s possession and Carty kicked the penalty with the last action of the half.
That positive period for Connacht was in stark contrast to the opening quarter when Leinster camped themselves in the visiting team’s 22, scoring a maul try through Jennings in the 13th minute.
Noel Reid stood out at 12 as Leinster’s rucking efficiency allowed them to build extended passages of threatening attack, even if their try came through the set-piece.
Aly Muldowney had been binned for blatantly taking out a lifter as Leinster won line-out ball just three minutes before, and Matt O’Connor’s side went into the corner thrice before finally getting some return with the five points from Jennings.
Mils Muliaina was having surprising problems dealing with Leinster’s aerial game too, dropping three high balls inside the first half. Still, Jimmy Gopperth’s penalty was the only other scoring the eastern province managed before the interval.
The Kiwi out-half notched his second penalty of the evening immediately after the break, slamming the ball low and over the bar from 45 metres out to extend the Leinster lead out to 11-6.
On the 50-minute mark, Gopperth struck again after Muldowney cynically slapped the ball down inside Connacht’s own 22 and with Leinster building through the phases.
But Lam’s side bounded down the other end swiftly, despite the phenomenal hitting power of Kane Douglas in the Leinster second row. A clever Carty grubber put Rob Kearney under pressure from the chasing Matt Healy, with Quinn Roux’s follow-up tackle driving the fullback over his own tryline.
However, the opportunity was wasted from the subesquent scrum as Healy was stripped of the ball by the energetic Luke Fitzgerald.
O’Connor was able to introduce international quality from the bench in this period in the shape of Sean Cronin, Jack McGrath and Jordi Murphy, helping Leinster to begin to boss the breakdown.
That was where Leinster’s next opportunity came from, as they poached the ball from Aki inside his own half, allowing Reid to direct some varied attacking thrusts. Eventually, Isaac Boss crawled over, but the scrum-half was held up.
Maks van Dyk came off the bench for his debut, but the South African prop was pinged at the five-metre scrum. The on-loan Cheetahs tighthead was penalised at the next scrum too, allowing Connacht to kick to touch near the Leinster 22.
Van Duk’s disastrous debut contined a third penalty, this time at the breakdown, meant Connacht could kick further down the Leinster line, as they opted against going for posts with seven minutes remaining.
Devin Toner was binned for coming in the side of the first Connacht mauling effort, but there was no stopping Lam’s pack second time around, George Naoupu touching down behind some major momentum.
Carty’s conversion was wide from out on the right, and then Connacht were turned over from the restart, allowing Leinster to put the ball up the jumper and eke out another penalty.
With two minutes left on the clock, captain Jamie Heaslip opted to go to the corner rather than posts. Gopperth’s touch-finder was kept in play by Healy, but the wing’s tapped pass remarkably fell into Zane Kirchner’s hands for the South African to burst over the tryline for the easiest score of his time at Leinster.
Gopperth’s conversion was on target as Reid deservedly picked up the man of the match award.
Tries: Shane Jennings, Zane Kirchner
Conversions: Jimmy Gopperth [1 from 2]
Penalties: Jimmy Gopperth [3 from 3]
Tries: George Naoupu
Conversions: Jack Carty [0 from 1]
Penalties: Jack Carty [2 from 3]
LEINSTER: Rob Kearney; Zane Kirchner, Luke Fitzgerald, Noel Reid (Gordon D’Arcy ’80), Dave Kearney; Jimmy Gopperth, Isaac Boss (Luke McGrath ’80); Michael Bent (Jack McGrath ’53), Aaron Dundon (Sean Cronin ’56), Tadhg Furlong (yellow card ’40 – ’50) (Maks Van Dyk ’65); Devin Toner (yellow card ’74), Kane Douglas; Kevin McLaughlin (Jack Conan ’47), Shane Jennings (Jordi Murphy ’63), Jamie Heaslip (capt.).
Replacements not used: Cathal Marsh.
CONNACHT: Mils Muliaina (Darragh Leader ’63); Danie Poolman, Robbie Henshaw, Bundee Aki (Craig Ronaldson ’74), Matt Healy; Jack Carty, Kieran Marmion (Caolin Blade ’73); Denis Buckley (Ronan Loughney ’71), Tom McCartney, Rodney Ah You; Quinn Roux, Aly Muldowney (yellow card ’10 – ’20) (Ultan Dillane ’68); John Muldoon (capt.), Eoin McKeon (Willie Faloon ’47 – ’51, ’68 permanent), George Naoupu.
Replacements not used: Dave Heffernan, Finlay Bealham.
Referee: Ian Davies [WRU].