Leinster struggle to put away Connacht
Leinster struggled to put away brave Connacht at a typically raucous and wet Galway Sportsgrounds to move into second in the Pro 12.
But Matt O’Connor knows a repeat performance will not be good enough in the Heineken Cup.
Connacht played all the rugby and led through a scintillating first-half try from Fionn Carr.
But after Ian Madigan was hooked in the second-half, Jimmy Gopperth saw his side home, kicking two late penalties and creating a try for Gordon D’Arcy which many people felt stemmed from a forward pass.
Referee George Clancy was booed from the field following his decision to allow that late try while home fans also felt that Jamie Heaslip should have been binned for a late charge on Dan Parks.
Connacht started off the evening at the basement end of the Pro12 but it was difficult to tell in a thrilling opening quarter when the home side enthusiastically pitched into their aristocratic visitors.
They won a scrum off an early maul, young Athlone lad Jack Carty pinged a lovely ball to the corner and his fellow youthful debutant, Galway man Darragh Leader, plucked incessant Leinster kicks from the skies with ease.
Madigan had an early chance from Leinster but missed; Gordon D’Arcy bust a huge hole and the visitors threatened out aide too; but robust defence from the home side, typified by ex-Lansdowne man Mick Kearney, repelled all.
Leinster had oodles of Lions and international caps but, with Brian O’Driscoll touching the ball but once in an opening half in which Connacht held a monopoly of passion and intensity, this was typical old school Cup tie fare.
And then, the cutting edge surprisingly came from the side whose back-line averaged just 22 years; Carty’s pass to Eoin Griffin tempted the intercept but deft hands flicked the ball on to Robbie Henshaw.
O’Driscoll’s heir apparent, hogging the first-half spotlight for himself, whipped a delicious ball while running at full pelt, to right-wing Fionn Carr and the ex-Leinster man accelerated to the line, rendering Madigan’s hapless tackle attempt even worse than it looked.
Carty missed the 22nd minute conversion and, so too Leader with two hopeful long-distance attempts, but the home side’s dander remained firmly in the ascendant as Leinster, improbably, grew more ruffled.
Madigan, after smacking the crossbar with a penalty effort, did open his side’s account when 100-capper Andrew Browne sacked Devin Toner from a close-in throw but the first-half memories were of thunderous green tacklers and sloppy blue-clad attacks.
Carty’s late three-pointer secured a deserved 8-3 half-time lead and the acclaim of the sold out 7210 crowd; Tom Denton, who conceded the penalty ineptly, did not return. A few more could have joined him on the bench as Leinster trooped disconsolately to the tea break.
The interval didn’t alter the script; Leinster maintained their bedraggled state but you feared for Connacht as they stealthily retreated and conceded territory.
Leinster finally put some aggressive phases when they eventually got close to the line but stout defence from Eoin McKeon acted as a stirring riposte.
As the conditions worsened after a fine start, Leinster hauled off their halves; Jimmy Gopperth had an immediate chance to narrow the gap as Connacht began to leak penalties.
He drilled it between the posts and, with 24 minutes left, you feared the miracle would slowly expire. Six minutes later, Gopperth put his side ahead. Home beckoned.
A moment of recklessness from Jamie Heaslip cost his side field position; a late shoulder charge on Dan Parks may have earned a binning in other referee’s eyes; George Clancy opted for discretion.
The Connacht clan’s outrage was compounded when Parks skewed his penalty effort wide; clutching their “get out of jail” card; Leinster sought to limp to the finishing line.
They did so via their maul and a dubious enough 74th minute try; a contentious award from Clancy when Gopperth’s pass to D’Arcy – after a lovely step – seemed a tad forward.
The out-half’s conversion secured Leinster the win and himself a starting berth in the Heineken Cup next week.
Connacht’s ultimate indignity was to end up without even a bonus point. After all the energy and excitement expended, they ended the evening as they started – rock bottom.
Leinster: R Kearney; Z Kirchner, B O'Driscoll, G D'Arcy, D Kearney; I Madigan (J Gopperth 54), E Reddan (I Boss 54); J McGrath (J O’Connell 76), S Cronin (A Dundon 70), M Moore (M Ross 47), D Toner, T Denton (M McCarthy HT), R Ruddock (D Ryan 54), J Murphy, J Heaslip captain.
Connacht: D Leader (T O’Halloran 67); F Carr, R Henshaw, E Griffin, M Healy; J Carty (D Parks 60), K Marmion (P O'Donohoe 71); B Wilkinson (D Buckley 57), J Harris-Wright (D Heffernan 74), N White (R Ah You 43), M Kearney (M Swift 70), C Clarke captain, A Browne, J Muldoon, E McKeon (G Naupou 76)