Elwood crushed by pain of costly late lapse
ERIC ELWOOD swept into the Connacht top job on a wave of enthusiasm and the freshness appeared to lift all around him as the province made an impressive start to the season.
Yet there was something depressingly familiar about Connacht's end-game agony on Saturday night, as a well-deserved and torturously earned losing bonus point was flung away courtesy of a 50-50 pass, gleefully gathered by Leinster replacement Dominic Ryan, who cruised over under the posts.
As gut-punches go -- and Connacht have had a few over the years -- this was right up there. Leinster deserved their victory, arriving with greater playing strength and motivation than on their last two visits when they had been sent home to think again.
However, following a stupendous defensive effort led by their back-row of Johnny O'Connor, Ray Ofisa and captain John Muldoon, the home side deserved something more tangible than consolatory pats on the back.
Perhaps Elwood's invigorating presence is the reason why Connacht were still seeking a try-scoring move in their own half with 80 minutes on the clock when, having not been able to crack an excellent Leinster defence all night, and with bodies battered from their own efforts, the sensible option was to leather the ball into touch and take the point.
"Part of you says, 'yeah let's try to win the game' but in a close game like that, maybe you just take your medicine, batten down the hatches and after the effort and endeavour, take your point and move on," said an emotionally shattered Elwood. "The atmosphere among the lads is not good because they know they should have got something out of the game.
"For 80 minutes of effort and then to get nothing is really frustrating. I can't fault the effort and the endeavour: there were long periods where we didn't have the ball and we defended valiantly."
As for Leinster, their September struggles are fast fading from the memory banks as Joe Schmidt's men notched up their fourth win on the bounce. While there was some hysterical over-reaction to Leinster's early-season woes, this was always going to be feet-finding exercise for players and coach and a solid foundation has now been set for a productive season.
There were glimpses of the attacking invention Schmidt has brought from Clermont, some nice loops and clever inter-changes, but they came up against a brick-wall defence cemented by furious intent and the vociferous support of 4,582 home fans.
They had two major line-breaks. The first, by Isaac Boss after 14 minutes, came when Ofisa was caught flat-footed and led to the game's only try after a marvellous pass by the scrum-half to Isa Nacewa on the far left.
The second followed shortly after as Sean O'Brien (who had another big game) burst through, but Shane Jennings was not able to take the off-load, unbalanced by a push from Mike McCarthy.
The Leinster set-pieces were rock solid with the line-out work imperious under the guidance of Leo Cullen. Connacht went well in the scrum but the visitors always had a slight edge and it was only when Mike Ross was replaced after 65 minutes that home loose-head Brett Wilkinson was able to show what damage he is capable of.
It may not have been as glamorous or as eye-catching as the recent victories over Munster in Lansdowne Road, Racing Metro at the RDS and Saracens in Wembley but this was a satisfying evening for Schmidt -- a significant notch on the belt in hazardous territory for Leinster.
"We're delighted," said Schmidt. "I think a fair bit of credit has to go to Connacht; they are a scrambling, difficult team to get on top of and I think Eric is doing a great job with them. I have a lot of sympathy for them because they deserved a bonus point.
"But I thought we deserved to win; we had the greater share of possession and territory and maybe a couple more line-breaks, but Connacht's fighting spirit is enormous here. It's been a bit of a graveyard for us and they were ahead of us in the table and we didn't underestimate them. We kept our composure well and kept them in their territory defensively."
Diminutive hooker Richardt Strauss has been one of the successes of the season in the injury-enforced absence of John Fogarty, and Schmidt was appreciative of the South African's efforts, which combined pin-point throwing with his best Duracell Bunny impression in the loose.
"Richardt has just grown and grown, but unfortunately not physically! I don't mean that as a criticism because Straussy weighs in at just under 100 kilos, but he throws about 110 kilos of energy into everything," said Schmidt.
With this fixture coming a few days after Declan Kidney's squad announcement, there was a clutch of players looking to send a message to the Irish coach. Of the players who did not make the cut last Tuesday, Wilkinson and Jamie Hagan had good outings but, equally, their counterparts Ross and Cian Healy showed why they are in the mix for the November internationals.
Likewise, Fionn Carr looked sharp but was starved of possession, while Ireland squad-member Shane Horgan used all his strength and experience as one of Leinster's most effective ball-carriers.
Cullen was starting his first match since injuring his shoulder six months ago and relished every second of his 60 minutes to show his readiness for November involvement.
It was a good night for Kidney, whose main men all went well, notably O'Brien, Sean Cronin and Jamie Heaslip, while Rob Kearney's half-time substitution for Gordon D'Arcy was not injury-related. Eoin Reddan staked his claim for a starting spot against South Africa, injecting vigour on his arrival, while Connacht scrum-half Frank Murphy had produced a busy display until firing out that intercept pass at the death.
Next weekend, Leinster face Edinburgh at the RDS without their large contingent of Ireland squad front-liners and Schmidt will look to the younger crew to step up to the plate and keep up the momentum.
Connacht are less affected by Ireland's call but their shallower squad means a lot of their players will have to go to the well once again for their trip to Treviso.
The Italians are blatantly targeting the fixture, having rested a lot of their first-choice players for last Friday's heavy defeat in Munster, and Elwood has to steel his demoralised squad for another big test.
"We just have to dust ourselves down now," said Elwood. "It's a huge challenge against Treviso because, as you saw from the team the other night, they are waiting in the long grass for us."
New opposition for Connacht under their new coach, but the same old hard, unrelenting story.
CONNACHT -- G Duffy; D Fanning (T Nathan 70), N Ta'auso, K Matthews, F Carr; I Keatley (M Nikora 60), F Murphy; B Wilkinson, S Cronin, J Hagan, M Swift, M McCarthy (B Upton 77), J O'Connor (E Taylor 17-25, 70), R Ofisa, J Muldoon.
LEINSTER -- R Kearney (G Darcy h-t); S Horgan, E O'Malley, F McFadden, I Nacewa; J Sexton, I Boss (E Reddan 65); C Healy, R Strauss, M Ross (S Shawe 65), L Cullen (N Hines 60), D Toner, S O'Brien, S Jennings, J Heaslip (D Ryan 70).
REF -- G Clancy (IRFU).