Re­grets, Con­nacht will have a few:

Le­in­ster ul­ti­mately re­warded for their stub­born re­fusal to throw in the towel

The Irish Times - Monday - Sport - - Front Page - Gerry Thorn­ley

Le­in­ster 33 Tries: O’Brien, Kear­ney, Cronin, Leavy, Porter; Cons: R Byrne (4). Con­nacht 29 Tries: Kelle­her, Leader, Carty, Blade; Cons: Carty (3); Pen: Carty.

Can a game be won­der­ful and cruel in equal mea­sure?

Even many Le­in­ster sup­port­ers, none of whom lost be­lief in their team and roared them home to the come­back of the sea­son, felt more than a lit­tle sym­pa­thy for the man­ner in which Con­nacht had a po­ten­tially land­mark vic­tory snatched from them.

Con­nacht have been break­ing new ground in re­cent years, with over­due wins in Thomond Park three sea­sons ago and Belfast this sea­son, and last sea­son’s hat-trick of home in­ter­pro wins. But storm­ing the RDS, and the cap­i­tal city, re­mains out of reach; and never more tan­ta­lis­ingly so than on Satur­day night.

In man­ag­ing just one win over Le­in­ster in Dublin since 1955, which was all of 16 years ago at Don­ny­brook, it’s doubt­ful whether Con­nacht ever earned them­selves a bet­ter op­por­tu­nity than this.

When Con­nacht played Le­in­ster in the 2016 Grand Fi­nal in Ed­in­burgh just be­fore kick-off Pat Lam pulled aside their back three of Niyi Ade­olokun, Tier­nan O’Halloran and Matt Healy and told them that the oc­ca­sion, the Mur­ray­field pitch, and the sunny weather were made for them. Go for it, and they did. The trio were on fire, and scored the prov­ince’s three tries in their 20-10 win.

None of them pitched up here. Al­ready miss­ing Ade­olokun and Healy through in­jury, they were fur­ther dis­rupted by the loss of O’Halloran be­fore kick-off.

The en­su­ing reshuf­fle saw Dar­ragh Leader shift from full­back to the wing, Kyle God­win from cen­tre to the left wing and Tom Far­rell from in­side to out­side cen­tre.

It also, ad­mit­tedly, meant a fired-up Bundee Aki was pro­moted from the bench to mid­field, al­though in a fur­ther change from the named 23, David Hor­witz was ruled out, and this meant pro­mo­tions to the bench for the young Academy duo of Conor Fitzger­ald and Kieran Joyce, nei­ther of whom were used.

Not that you’d have guessed it for much of the night, in at­tack at any rate.

Within five min­utes Con­nacht’s re­jigged back­line had carved a sweet strike move for Cian Kelle­her to com­plete a clas­sic winger’s fin­ish in the cor­ner; al­beit a mite too eas­ily for Leo Cullen and Stu­art Lan­caster’s lik­ing one ven­tures.

Aki had shaped to truck it up be­fore pulling the ball back for Jack Carty and Leader gave Kelle­her the try-scor­ing pass. In re­sponse to Jami­son Gib­son-Park lay­ing on a try for the im­pres­sive Conor O’Brien, Aki then trucked up a li­ne­out steal by Gavin Thorn­bury and off the re­cy­cle Tom Far­rell, a men­ace all night, freed his hands for Leader to ap­ply a stun­ning fin­ish.

Bonus point

Even bet­ter fol­lowed when Carty, hav­ing the best sea­son of his ca­reer, chipped gath­ered and scored, and then re­sponded to Mick Kear­ney muscling over by dum­my­ing Dan Leavy and giv­ing the ex­cel­lent Caolin Blade a snappy run to the line with a sump­tu­ous pass for the bonus point try.

Carty’s only miss off the ‘tee’ was the first, touch­line con­ver­sion and when his 43-me­tre penalty ex­tended the lead to 29-12 Con­nacht looked to have the match in their hands.

Alas, al­though they upped their in­ten­sity for a while in de­fence, if there was one flaw in Con­nacht’s per­for­mance it is that in­stead of con­tin­u­ing to hold onto the ball their kick­ing game in­vited Le­in­ster to run it back. And if Le­in­ster are in­vited to run it back, there’s a good chance they’re go­ing to do ex­actly that.

Cue the endgame salvo of tries by Sean Cronin, Dan Leavy and fi­nally An­drew Porter.

While two bonus points might have seemed like a good re­turn to some Con­nacht fans be­fore the game, af­ter­wards it didn’t, and cer­tainly not to Andy Friend.

“We wanted more than that. We scored four tries against a very good Le­in­ster out­fit and that was a mes­sage in­side to the play­ers, ‘for 65 min­utes when we played our style of football you showed you were a dom­i­nant side and your forced Le­in­ster into er­rors’.”

“Then we prob­a­bly shut up shop just a touch, and maybe started to de­fend a lead there and gave them some op­por­tu­ni­ties and they’re a good enough side to take those, and they did. So credit to them too.”

Oomph off the bench

Even the man of the match, Carty, ad­mit­ted: “Maybe our choice of kicks could have been bet­ter, to get the ball off the park. That’s some­thing my­self and the half-backs have to look at.”

Le­in­ster had en­joyed their spells of con­ti­nu­ity un­til then, with Scott Fardy giv­ing an­other tour de force (as did Con­nacht’s leader from the front Jar­rad But­ler), and ul­ti­mately their abil­ity to keep the ball through mul­ti­ple phases even­tu­ally wore Con­nacht down.

But it needed some oomph off the bench, with Max Dee­gan and Porter giv­ing their car­ry­ing game some bal­last and Noel Reid given them width, as Adam Byrne es­pe­cially caused may­hem with his strength and of­fload­ing on Con­nacht’s stretched left flank. Los­ing Fin­lay Beal­ham to a head knock also hurt Con­nacht’s scrum.

Ne­ces­sity be­ing the mother of in­ven­tion, as much as any­thing else, Cullen ad­mit­ted there was “the re­al­i­sa­tion that there’s no mar­gin for er­ror now. I think there was a lit­tle bit of, ‘oh it’s gonna come, it’s gonna come’, but then it was like, ‘oh it has to come now be­cause if it doesn’t the game is up’, and we used ev­ery last se­cond.”

“But I think we were just a lit­tle bit more clin­i­cal, just the ur­gency, some of the crisp­ness of our pass­ing, when it wasn’t on we were able to hold it, etc. The ruck, we were able to chase in a lit­tle bit more ag­gres­sively and clear some of the threats that were there.”

“So it’s a com­bi­na­tion of fac­tors re­ally. Full credit to the play­ers for be­ing able to dig it out, but as I said, there is a ‘but’ there.”

Porter, hav­ing brought Carty’s penalty to make it 29-12 into range when con­ced­ing ten me­tres for dis­sent, was like a man pos­sessed there­after. He as­suredly had the Mon­day video re­view in mind, and his re­demp­tory match-win­ning plunge for the line will have made it con­sid­er­ably more bear­able view­ing.

Some game though.

We prob­a­bly shut up shop just a touch, and maybe started to de­fend a lead and gave them some op­por­tu­ni­ties

PHO­TO­GRAPH: JAMES CROMBIE/INPHO

Le­in­ster’s Conor O’Brien cel­e­brates scor­ing his side’s open­ing try with Rory O’Lough­lin.

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