Sunday 25 September 2016

Connacht stand their ground to crank up title momentum

Connacht 7 Leinster 6

Published 27/03/2016 | 02:30

Connacht’s Bundee Aki celebrates last night’s victory over Leinster. Photo: Ramsey Cardy
Connacht’s Bundee Aki celebrates last night’s victory over Leinster. Photo: Ramsey Cardy
Leinster's Rhys Ruddock is tackled by Connacht's Sean O’Brien. Photo: Stephen McCarthy / Sportsfile
Leinster's Tadhg Furlong is tackled by Connacht's Aly Muldowney. Photo: Stephen McCarthy / Sportsfile

The script had it that when Leinster, with the strong wind behind them in the second half, started to ramp up pressure on Connacht with phase after phase as the clock counted down, we would end up with a 9-7 scoreline and a post-match where the home team were regretting not being able to hold out. The script was shredded. They held out. And as a packed Sportsground of 7,300 reminded us when referee Nigel Owens blew for the last time, Connacht are top of the league.

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Every Saturday night in Galway is probably lively enough but after this win it surely reached epic levels. The reaction of the crowd to their team's win was thunderous. To have slipped here would have seen Connacht knocked off the top, having to go to Belfast on Friday night where the hope team will be desperate for points.

The shortened turnaround puts Pat Lam's side at a disadvantage physically, but mentally they have never been in better shape.

"When you think of all the things we've been through that was just another one of them," Lam said. "It was such a big occasion that we channelled all of that into our systems. Overall, it was a tremendous effort."

More than that, it was a terrific show of confidence in the possession game that has become Connacht's modus operandi under Lam. Into the wind in the second half they could have deviated and kicked the ball away. As he said afterwards, he reminded his players at half-time that they preferred running with the ball than tackling their opponents. "They showed great trust in their game because the boys know that it works," Lam said.

If it works on Friday night then it will give Connacht a win in a venue where their record is barren in the Pro12. Moreover, it would be a down-payment on a home semi-final never mind a place in the top six, which was their goal at the start of the season.

As for Leinster, they felt sure it would have a happy ending when that late pressure saw them held up over the Connacht line for an attacking scrum.

"I thought we had scrum dominance at that stage," Leo Cullen said. "Then we had the couple of scrums on the line that went down and I was hoping for a penalty at that stage, but we didn't get one, so we'll have to look back at the tape and see what we can do better."

That review might also look at the ball they kicked away in that first 40. We had hailstones and rain intermittently howling straight down the field into the College Road end, yet they asked Luke McGrath to try and box-kick his way out of defence, which was never going to work.

Perhaps they were fearful of turning the ball over at the tackle. That's how it looked late in the half when they were done for holding on, only for AJ MacGinty to get too far under the ball when success would have given Connacht a 10-point lead.

The try, which had come on 14 minutes, was typical of the way Connacht play nowadays: bring the defence to one touchline and then drag them to the other. In this case they did well to get the second part sorted under pressure, and when wing Niyi Adeolokun kicked ahead it didn't immediately look like having a positive ending.

A nice bounce however, combined with a determined run from Kieran Marmion, saw the scrumhalf beat Luke Fitzgerald to the touchdown.

A seven-point lead didn't look like a great buffer to take into the second half, but the wind was hard to harness. The second half was only a few minutes old when Ian Madigan pulled three back, but he had to wait until the 64th minute before reducing the gap to a point with a perfect strike off the tee from 35 metres.

Into the wind the Connacht forwards did really well in the loose, but three lost lineouts in that second half - two of them in Leinster's 22 off penalties put to touch - looked like undoing them. With man of the match Eoin McKeon leading the charge, along with captain John Muldoon who was outstanding, they held out for a terrific win. This competition is now looking at a cracking finish. With Connacht at the heart of it.

Scorers - Connacht: Marmion try, MacGinty con. Leinster: Madigan 2 pens.

Connacht: T O'Halloran (C Blade 66-71 temp); N Adeolokun, B Aki, P Robb (R Henshaw 49), M Healy; AJ MacGinty (S O'Leary 61), K Marmion (C Blade 75); D Buckley (R Loughney 70), T McCartney (D Heffernan 70), N White (F Bealham 6), Q Roux (50), A Muldowney, S O'Brien (J Connolly 66), J Muldoon (capt) E McKeon.

Leinster: I Nacewa (capt); F McFadden, G Ringrose, B Te'o, L Fitzgerald (Z Kirchner 38); I Madigan, L McGrath (E Reddan 61); C Healy (J McGrath 48), R Strauss (S Cronin 50), T Furlong (M Ross 61), R Molony, H Triggs (D Toner 61), D Ryan, R Ruddock (J Heaslip 66), J van der Flier

Referee: N Owens (Wales)

The run-in

Fri, Apr 1: Ulster v Connacht, Kingspan; Sat, Apr 2: Leinster v Munster.

Fri, Apr 15: Leinster v Edinburgh, RDS; Sat, Apr 16: Zebre v Ulster; Connacht v Munster, Sportsground.

Fri, Apr 29: Treviso v Connacht, Stadio Monigo; Munster v Edinburgh, IIP;

Sat, Apr 30: Ulster v Leinster, Kingspan.

Sat, May 7: Connacht v Glasgow, Sportsground; Leinster v Treviso, RDS; Munster v Scarlets, Thomond Park; Ospreys v Ulster, Liberty Stadium.

Fri/Sat, May 20/21: Play-offs

Sat, May 28: Final, Murrayfield

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