Delirium in the Sportsgrounds as Connacht overcome Leinster in arm wrestle
Connacht 7 Leinster 6
Published 26/03/2016 | 19:42
"We are top of the league," the 7,300 Connacht faithful sang. "We have dreams and songs to sing," they throatily roared.
Both songs carried stirring truth on a racuous night in Galway. The sky is the limit and Connacht continue to soar there to reach new heights.
Evading a late surge from Leinster on their own line, a moment of magic from the entire team which created Kieran Marmion's 15th minute seven-pointer deservedly proved the difference between the two teams.
Despite winning the toss to play with the strong second-half gale, Leinster only managed two Ian Madigan penalties in an under-par display. And they lost Luke Fitzgerald and Cian Healy to more injury
But this was all about Pat Lam's men; as they face two more interpros in successive weeks, this all but confirmed their Champions Cup status; now they can plot a route to actually winning the Pro 12, not just leading it.
Leinster won the toss and decided to play into the wind and they dominated early possession, with Connacht perhaps guilty of playing too much rugby as the visitors effected a couple of early turnovers on the floor, added to a scrum win against the head.
They were further hampered when Nathan white shipped a heavy knock and was removed after just five minutes for a HIA; such is the rude health of Connacht these days that Pat Lam promptly replaced him with another international, recent Six Nations debutant, Finlay Bealham.
Despite Leinster's relative early comfort, the home side stuck to their principles and still tried to move the ball to the wider channels, but spillages from Matt Healy on a couple of occasions halted their gallop.
Their commitment would, they surely committed to belief, be rewarded. And how. As Leinster tossed away another possession from a succession of their poor kicks from the half-backs, Connacht worked the left-hand touch line brilliantly with all three back-rowers, showing off their comfortable ball skills.
The ball was recycled economically infield and, although AJ MacGinty was taken high by Isa Nacewa, he kept the move alive and Bundee Aki fed Niyi Adeolokun, who thought better of trying to outwit and outrace Luke Fitzgerald.
Instead, he chipped ahead and Fitzgerald had to chase back and try to prevent the onrushing Kieran Marmion touching down; he could not. MacGinty recovered his poise after that heavy tackle to nail the extremely difficult conversion despite the swirling wind.
Leinster didn't emerge to from their own half for the following ten minutes, their imprisonment aided by some thumping tackles from the home side, with Bundee Aki and Sean O'Brien prominent, and finally deciding to kick for territory as the conditions demanded.
MacGinty had a long-range penalty attempt but even with the wind his attempt seemed overly ambitious. Leinster recovered some of their early poise but were undone by poor decision-making and they were further rocked when Luke Fitzgerald, only returning to the side are three months out with knee trouble, limped off just before the break.
Connacht almost committed hari-kiri before the break when they spilled the ball trying to play out from their 22 and, although Leinster were going nowhere on halfway when Luke McGrath booted the ball out to signal half-time oranges, you wondered if the 7-0 lead would be sufficient, particularly given Leinster's bench resources.
Unlike Leinster's first-half approach, Connacht tried to play their way out of their half upon the opens restart but promptly turned the ball over on the ground and Ian Madigan slotted a 43rd minute kick.
Connacht responded well though and some stirring continuity in the middle third infused the home side with renewed vigour for the contest, all the while Cian Healy was struggling with a hip injury. He would immediately depart the fray.
Leinster remained fitful, Connacht fit for any challenge and their dominance of possession began to assume an almost imperious air, in contrast, when Ben Te'o kicked a ball dead, you sensed that the home side were unable to find their poise.
Connacht needed theirs when presented with a perfect scoring opportunity in the 53rd minute but, after kicking a penalty to the corner, they failed to secure the ball and the chance was lost. Their supporters sucked in their disappointment but anxiety circulated the Clan Terrace.
Connacht continued to dominate the ball but did so while within their own half as Leinster simply waited for an inevitable mistake, from where the process would start all over again. Leinster emptied the bench to heighten the pressurised nature of the home side's tightrope walk.
As Leinster scrummed down following one such Connacht error, the home side committed another, graver offence, referee Nigel Owens deeming Marmion's attempt to dominate Eoin Reddan as he had done Luke McGrath to have begun from an offside position.
Madigan made it 7-6 in the 64th minute and the crowd removed their gloves at ever quickening intervals to chew their nails to the quick.
Back they came again, Bundee Aki off-loading in his own half, spurning any concern as he sought to launch a meaningful attack; his bravery paid off as his side created an overlap on the 22 but Denis Buckley sought contact instead of colleague.
It was all getting a little too frantic for Connacht comfort as another attack broke down and Leinster sought the relief of a scrum; only for replacement Jack McGrath to be pinged for dropping his knee.
Sadly, Connacht messed up their second five-metre lineout of the half; surely, their relative profligacy in such a tight match would haunt them?
Leinster were a flutter themselves too, poor kicking from Madigan and a howler from Kirchner, missing touch when it was easier to find it with the supporting gale, indicated their indecision but soon they were camped on the Connacht line as the minute ebbed away.
Some heroic defence from a series of close-in drives held the white hordes at bay but only at the cost of a five-metre scrum. It reset once. Leinster edged the push but Owens ordered another scrum down as the 7,300 peered at the clock.
The scrum was legal, Leinster rushed for the line but the ball as spilled. Connacht were on their own line but it didn't matter; they had the ball. Soon, they kicked it as far as Eyre Square. Cue delirium.
Connacht - T O'Halloran; 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 (A Browne 51) , A Muldowney; S O'Brien (J Connolly 67), E McKeon, J Muldoon capt.
Leinster - I Nacewa capt; F McFadden, G Ringrose, B Te'o, L Fitzgerald (Z Kirchner 35); I Madigan, L McGrath (E Reddan 61); C Healy (J McGrath 49), R Strauss (S Cronin 51), T Furlong (M Ross 61), R Molony, H Triggs (D Toner 61), D Ryan, J van der Flier, R Ruddock (J Heaslip 67)
Ref - N Owens (WRU)