Connacht beaten out the gate as Leinster overcome early pressure to prosper

Connacht 21 Leinster 50
Brendan Fanning

Given the struggle across the board to visualise the pot of gold at the end of the Rainbow Cup, Leinster needed something — anything — to generate enthusiasm in the wake of the abrupt end to interest in the Champions Cup last weekend.

So the prospect of three defeats in a row was presented at Leinster training. Hands up who wants to be part of that? That said, in a bizarre game of rugby, they didn’t exactly explode out of the blocks.

Instead, the opening spell for Connacht was up there with the best rugby they’ve played this season.

Tom Daly and Sean O’Brien were providing great go-forward, Caolin Blade was bouncing off the back of every other ruck, forcing the Leinster defence back on their heels, and, in the empty stadium, all you could hear was the whooping and hollering coming from the home bench.

At that point it was impossible for them not to be thinking of taking this scalp for the second time in four months. And yet they were beaten out the gate by a side who gave maximum value to the idea of making up for lost time.

If Stuart Lancaster puts a premium on how effectively his team transition from defence to attack, he can use this video as evidence.

There were shades of what happened in Sandy Park against Exeter last month, albeit in a game with less meaning.

Connacht started off sensibly, with Stephen Fitzgerald tapping over two penalties against sluggish looking opponents, before Blade struck from 40 metres, picking up a bouncing ball after his opposite number, Luke McGrath, was tackled by Finlay Bealham.

McGrath made a captain’s call which came back negative. Connacht were away in a hack.

When Fitzgerald knocked over another penalty, Leinster were looking at their worst run of rugby since they became the team all others wanted to level.

At which point Leinster went from 16-0 down to 26-16 ahead in the space of 14 minutes. You could say this game swung fairly dramatically.

The man who generated the momentum initially was Hugo Keenan, with two tries to reduce Connacht’s lead to just two points.

Now Leinster were causing Connacht’s defence huge problems with the combined width and pace.

Suddenly it was as if Connacht were observers of their own demise, powerless to intervene. And, certainly, unable to cope with the blue maul.

It gave tries to James Tracy and, indirectly, Ross Molony.

The bad news was that by the break they lost two key men: Lion in waiting Jack Conan with a head injury — he seemed in good nick going off for the HIA — and Ciarán Frawley, who looked a good deal worse after getting bounced in a tackle by Niall Murray.

For their part, Connacht lost Matt Healy and captain Jarrad Butler. They also had to wear another seven points before the break, when Ross Byrne kicked passed to Rory O’Loughlin — it was borderline offside — who put Cian Kelleher away. Byrne made it 33-16 to complete the turnaround.

When Leinster’s maul drove through the middle of the Connacht lineout six minutes into the new half, it was game over, at which point the home side would gladly have gathered their things and left. It meant Leinster could go into virtual training mode out of touch, having the benefit of contested mauls — but not that effectively contested.

Six minutes after Porter got over, Scott Fardy drove the blue bus down the same path from another lineout in the same corner of the field.

The video review on this would be a good time for the Connacht forwards to ring in sick. You can’t hope to stay in any game if you concede penalties kickable to the corner followed by passive defence at the maul.

It wasn’t all grunt from Leinster, though.

They had what would have been the try of the night disallowed when Dave Kearney lost the ball over the line under pressure from Sean O’Brien — who managed to poke it free — and were still in scoring mode on the buzzer.

Keenan got over in the corner to close the show. No, it wasn’t from a maul.

Scorers — Connacht: C Blade, P Sullivan try each; C Fitzgerald 3 pens; con. Leinster: H Keenan 3 tries; J Tracy, R Molony, C Kelleher, A Porter, S Fardy try each; R Byrne 5 cons).

Connacht: J Porch (S Arnold 53); P Sullivan, S O’Brien, T Daly, M Healy (O McNulty 30); C Fitzgerald, C Blade (K Marmion 65); D Buckley (M Burke 57), D Heffernan (J Murphy 65), F Bealham (D Robertson-McCoy 57); N Murray, G Thornbury, J Butler (A Papali’i 30), E Masterson, C Oliver.

Leinster: H Keenan; C Kelleher, G Ringrose, C Frawley (R O’Loughlin 37), D Kearney; R Byrne (J Larmour 56), L McGrath (capt) (R Osborne 62); P Dooley (E Byrne 55), J Tracy (D Sheehan 55), A Porter (T Furlong 55); R Molony, S Fardy; J Murphy (R Baird 64), J Conan (HIA; J Van der Flier 25), S Penny.

Referee: F Murphy (IRFU).

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