Jim Glennon: Henshaw exit won't halt Connacht's momentum
Published 29/05/2016 | 02:30
Edinburgh was all set up for a classic, one which was duly delivered, if not quite in the manner the 'purists' would have wanted; having said that, however, Pat Lam, John Muldoon and their team are in the process of re-defining what's 'pure' in rugby.
They went into the game full of confidence, as they had every right to. Some players unknown last September such as Ultan Dillane, Matt Healy, Tiernan O'Halloran and Niyi Adeolokun added significantly to the raw power and class of the likes of Bundee Aki and Robbie Henshaw, who were at the core of everything good about Connacht, and that's just to mention a few - the list is not quite endless, but every squad member played their part on and off the field, yesterday and right through the season.
Their attack was, yet again, the principal driver of their success. Their ability to move the point of attack and put the ball through an extra set of hands, not to mention their comfort in doing so, is their hallmark. Second-row Aly Muldowney had more possession in midfield yesterday than many Connacht centre partnerships of my era had in their entire careers!
Yesterday they dealt successfully with the league's best defence - Leinster's defence has been as much a core component of their play as the expansive attacking style has been for Connacht.
The scrum was always going to be a key battleground: even without Cian Healy and Marty Moore, Leo Cullen's team possess two full front-rows that would be a match for most in the league; it was undoubtedly an area in which they targeted Connacht, but only to fleeting effect.
With Mike McCarthy and Devin Toner unavailable, Mick Kearney, himself impressive of late, and the emerging Ross Molony filled Leinster's second-row spots. Both in terms of managing the lineout, and in meeting Connacht in the physical battle, Kearney's early injury was a blow.
Although the scrum didn't always go their way, the ability of their key carriers like Muldoon, Aki and Henshaw rescued the situation somewhat, while their lineout - especially the throwing of Tom McCartney - was typically reliable, and was the key facet in allowing them to get their attacking game going.
At out-half, AJ MacGinty was outstanding, and the way in which he's come into the set-up after his World Cup stint for the United States is highly admirable. Opposite him was Irish rugby's main man in Johnny Sexton, and if last week he was back to his best, yesterday he played second fiddle to an opponent who varied his game superbly, showing the keenest of rugby brains in doing so.
At scrum-half, ex-Connacht player Eoin Reddan was outshone by his opposite number Kieran Marmion.
Henshaw - in action against the team he joins this summer - and Aki have developed an excellent midfield partnership and they posed Ben Te'o and Garry Ringrose plenty of problems yesterday, to the extent that the Leinster duo were largely anonymous.
Henshaw's absence will certainly be felt by Connacht, but not as keenly as many might believe. His departure will be a speed-bump to the momentum of what they're building; his international involvement meant he was by no means ever-present anyway, and on countless occasions this season, Lam's extended squad has demonstrated that depth is not an issue.
In the western province, and in all regions around the country, this will be a huge boost for the sport's profile.
The challenge now for Connacht will be to capitalise on this success to position themselves for consistent, long-term competitiveness and success.
Such is the extent of the opportunity presented that it's doubtful whether Connacht have the financial wherewithal to fully exploit it; it's over therefore to the gentlemen of the IRFU, and it shouldn't take a repeat of the 2003 march on Lansdowne Road to unlock the chequebook either.
Sunday Indo Sport