Bradley's heroes keep heat on Ulster
A LITTLE bitterness goes a long way as Connacht proved last night with a fantastic display full of skill and commitment to clinch the Magners League victory they had left behind them at the RDS a few weeks ago.
Michael Bradley's side were desperate to make up for their lacklustre loss to an under-strength Munster last weekend and determined to keep the pressure on Ulster in their perennial quest for Heineken Cup qualification.
If that Munster defeat was deeply frustrating, the fact this game was forced upon them (three matches in seven days ) was another reason for the siege mentality that traditionally brings the best out of this team.
And that is exactly what it did with tries from Brian Tuohy, Michael Swift and Troy Nathan securing a seminal victory (which leaves them level with Ulster) as the European champions were blown off the park by a ferocious home challenge.
Connacht had heroes everywhere, led by a barnstorming display from full-back Gavin Duffy with hooker Sean Cronin, John Muldoon and George Naoupu not far behind. Their turnover and defence work was phenomenal and, in terms of intensity, with so much more to play for, they were a level above their shell-shocked opponents.
Leinster came to Galway looking for a win to guarantee their home semi-final berth while giving a batch of front-liners a last run-out before the trip to Toulouse for their Heineken Cup semi-final showdown on Saturday week.
Isa Nacewa was a precautionary late withdrawal with Simon Keogh coming onto the left wing while Blackrock's Kyle Tonetti was handed the No 12 jersey.
There was plenty of bite to Connacht's early play, the tackles were going in hard and players ran onto the ball with pace and purpose. It should have led to a try after five minutes when Nathan made a great break up but could not find Brian Tuohy with the scoring pass.
Leinster tightened up, worked their way to the Connacht line and won a penalty out wide on the left. It would have been interesting to see if Shaun Berne could convert the difficult kick given that the Australian could yet be given those duties against Toulouse but Leinster opted for the scrum.
It set up a lengthy period of pressure when Leinster went over and back through forwards and backs but could not find a way through.
The hits kept going in, with Muldoon and Naoupu particularly destructive and it was 0-0 as the clock ticked past the half-hour mark.
Then, in classic rope-a-dope fashion, Connacht broke out and scored the first try courtesy of a fantastic off-load from Fionn Carr to Tuohy after brilliant work from Conor O'Loughlin and Cronin. Nikora converted for 7-0 and the Sportsground roared their approval.
The Kiwi out-half missed an opportunity to make it 10-0 with the last act of the first half but Connacht went in with an excellent lead given that they had probably 25pc possession.
Eoin Reddan was looking sharp at scrum-half but Berne looked slightly laboured outside him which reflected much of Leinster's back play.
However, Leinster had a bench packed with impact and started the second-half with Cian Healy and Jamie Heaslip on to add some punch and it was the visitors who struck first with a Berne penalty.
But Connacht were not for wilting and another superb burst from Cronin set up Nikora for a drop-goal to leave it at 10-3 after 46 minutes. Back they came again, Duffy, Carr and the ubiquitous Cronin surged forward before the ball made it out to second-row Swift on the left and he charged through the despairing Leinster cover for a try which Nikora converted brilliantly for 17-3.
Cheika sent on Leo Cullen to steady the ship and Berne made it 17-6, courtesy of an upright, with 20 minutes left.
Duffy was on fire at the back and, with Cronin and Nikora off, provided further inspiration with a fantastic break through the middle which ended with Nathan picking from the ruck and scooting over for the try, Keatley converting for 24-6.
Pride stung, Leinster put some phases together and another bout of scrum pressure led to a penalty try which Berne converted for 24-13.
Back came Connacht and Keatley pushed them 27-13 ahead with a well-hit penalty and seven minutes on the clock which, despite concerted pressure from Leinster, they ran down effectively.
Despite their arduous schedule with Scarlets next up on Sunday, this win sets up Connacht for their decisive trip to Ravenhill in the last round and augers well for their Challenge Cup semi-final against Toulon.
Defeat will irritate Leinster against a side that always gets under their skin and their stilted attacking in Jonathan Sexton's absence is a concern with even Brian O'Driscoll, who received treatment on his left ankle but played the full 80 minutes, unable to make an impact.
However, they will bring a different mentality to Toulouse. That is for another day, last night was all about Connacht as, once again, they proved their worth to Irish rugby.
CONNACHT -- G Duffy; B Tuohy, T Nathan, A Wynne, F Carr; M Nikora (I Keatley 60), C O'Loughlin (K Campbell 39); R Loughney (B Wilkonson 71), S Cronin (A Flavin 60), R Morris; M Swift, M McCarthy (B Upton 64); J Muldoon (capt), M McComish (J O'Connor 60), G Naoupu. Sin-bin: J O'Connor (71).
LEINSTER -- G Dempsey (I Madigan 47); A Conway, B O'Driscoll, K Tonetti (E O'Malley 40), S Keogh; S Berne, E Reddan; S Wright, R Strauss (J Fogarty, CJ van der Linde (C Healy 40); N Hines, M O'Kelly (L Cullen 53); K McLaughlin (J Heaslip 40), S Jennings (capt), Stephen Keogh.
REF -- P Fitzgibbon (Ireland).