THE DUBLIN NATIVE who landed an injury-time drop goal to snatch victory for Connacht in their only win in the professional era in the capital said he can’t believe they have not won there since.
Mark McHugh, who left Leinster looking for game-time with Connacht, landed an 83rd minute drop goal to snatch a 26-23 win at Donnybrook in September 2002.
It was the first-ever meeting between Leinster and Connacht in the Celtic League and while the westerners have trekked back to Donnybrook and the RDS 14 times since then, they have been beaten on every single occasion.
Connacht have won six of their 14 meetings with Leinster at the Sportsground and did, of course, beat them 20-10 in Murrayfield to win the Pro12 title in 2016, but a losing bonus point on three occasions has been as much as they have captured in Dublin since that famous win.
“It’s a surprise they haven’t won in Dublin since then, especially given all the success of recent years. But it’s also hard to believe it’s a decade and a half since that night,” said McHugh.
“We had made a good start to the season and had a good team and fancied our chances in that game. We were looking good to win and Keith Gleeson scored a late converted try which tied up the match.
“It looked like a draw but we had one good attack and the ball came back to me and I had a go and thankfully it went over.
“But there was a lot of self-belief in that team, we had won a lot of games late on and just never gave up. It was a great win but I find it hard to believe Connacht have not won in Dublin since. We certainly didn’t think that would be the case that night.”
That was the second time in three games that McHugh landed a last gasp drop goal, having snatched victory away to Borders on the opening weekend. The late drama in games saw them win their opening five matches, a run which remains Connacht’s best-ever start to a season.
“The inter-pros were always tough games and that remains the same today, especially with so many of them on this time of year,” said McHugh, who later that season scored on his only Irish appearance against Tonga.
McHugh was part of the first wave of players to move west from Leinster in the professional era — he spent six years at the Sportsground before signing for Montpellier.
“A few of us moved around then, the likes of Ronan McCormack and Des Dillon and there has been a steady stream down through the years,” added McHugh, who works in the financial services industry but who is also assistant coach to Mike Ruddock with high-flying Leinster.
He’s not the only member of that Connacht side to go into management — Tim Allnutt is the current team manager at the Sportsground, Eric Elwood is a former head coach, Dan McFarland is Scotland’s forwards coach, a position which Jerry Flannery occupies with Munster, while Peter Bracken is a scrum coach and Paul Neville is a coach with Garryowen.
Current Leinster head coach Leo Cullen played in the second row on that evening in 2002 for a Leinster side who were reigning champions.
The Connacht squad for today’s clash at the RDS includes Leinster natives Cian Kelleher, Tom Farrell, Matt Healy, Denis Coulson and Eoghan Masterson who will be hoping to follow in McHugh’s footsteps and finally bridge that 15-year gap.
Flashback: Leinster 23-26 Connacht
Donnybrook, Friday, 13 September 2002
Leinster: G D’Arcy; D Hickie, K Lewis, D Quinlan, J McWeeney; C Warner, B O’Meara; R Corrigan (capt), S Byrne, P Wallace, L Cullen, M O’Kelly, A McCullen, V Costello, K Gleeson. Replacements: S Horgan for Quinlan (51), P Smyth for Byrne (58), A Dunne for Warner (58), D Dillon for McCullen (69), N Treston for Wallace (70).
Connacht: M McHugh; T Robinson, D Yapp, T Allnutt (capt), W Munn; E Elwood, C Keane; D McFarland, J Flannery, P Bracken, W Waugh, R Frost, M Swift, J O’Sullivan, P Neville. Replacements: C Rigney for Waugh Neville (60), R McCormack for McFarland (61).
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