Stylish Leinster go top with comprehensive win over Connacht
Leinster 24 Connacht 13
LEINSTER fans might prefer to turn the clocks back five months instead of merely an hour this weekend but, as a small smidgen of vengeance for their Pro12 humbling in Murrayfield against Connacht, this will do for starters.
Leo Cullen’s men overcame an early 6-0 defeat to hold Pat Lam’s men scoreless for more than hour as second-half tries from wings Adam Byrne and Barry Daly added to the rest from Isa Nacewa’s boot ensured Leinster maintained their long unbeaten league run at the RDS.
And, despite spending ten minutes in the sin bin, Tullow Tank Sean O’Brien offered a timely reminder of his power with a brilliant display as Ireland coach Joe Schmidt prepares to select his side to face the All Blacks in Chicago next week.
But it was his back-row partner Dan Leavy who was the game’s star performer as Leinster’s defence spurned Connacht’s fitful all-court game.
“We knew they liked to attack very wide and they ripped us apart in the opening 20 minutes,” said Leavy. “We defended better as the game went on and we built momentum and were loving it in the last few minutes.
“We targeted their dangerous players and weathered the storm very well. It was a team effort but it was great to get two tries from the wingers, especially Barry on his first start. We know we have to make our mark when we get our chance.
“I’m loving it. I spent a lot of time on the bench last season but now I am getting a lot of momentum. We’re evolving every week and we are learning from our mistakes. We can take a lot of positives.”
And all this despite starting with just one player who lined out from the beginning for that chastening finale in Murrayfield; this was an impressive display of familiar strength in depth.
Connacht started like a steam train but had hit the buffers well before the final whistle as Leinster slowly strangled the life from them.
They won the early kicking duel and Cian Healy was adjudged to have infringed at a breakdown just inside the ten-metre line to allow Craig Ronaldson his first pot at goal; he made no mistake with an arrow-like delivery from his fifth minute shot to give the visitors an early lead.
Connacht were playing some lovely stuff early on, confirming their return to the form that won them the Pro 12 final when humbling their hosts last May and, when Healy erred offside after another wave of green-shirted interplay, Ronaldson doubled his side’s advantage in the 13th minute.
It was no more than the effervescent westerners deserved after such an enterprising opening. Leinster’s defence tightened up and Ronaldson was an unwitting casualty, tackled by Leavy and sent off for a Head Injury Assessment which brought Bundee Aki, newly tied to a contract, into the fray.
Leinster won a penalty in the red zone and spurned a possible three-pointer but a wonderful steal from the Connacht captain John Muldoon from the grasp of Jack Conan averted the danger, albeit only momentarily as Leinster then managed to win a scrum penalty.
This time, they didn’t look the gift horse in the mouth from on the 22 and captain Isa Nacewa halved the deficit in the 24th minute.
Buoyed by this, Leinster’s blue wall became more forbidding and they won a breakdown penalty - a second theft by the in-form Leavy - on the ten-metre line which allowed them once again to kick to touch.
Once again, they unforgivably coughed up the possession in the air.
Just as they seemed to be coping better as a team though, they were reduced in number when the TMO Olly Hodges alerted John Lacey to a Sean O’Brien clearout which caught Connacht centre Peter Robb on the head.
Leinster rallied, though; Mick Kearney thieved another ball for an improving defence after Rory O’Loughlin smashed Robb on the ten-metre line and this time Nacewa did opt for the long-range effort; his success levelled matters with seven minutes remaining in the half
Things got better for Leinster when Lacey, again referring to the big screen, adjudged that Robb had deliberately knocked on when intercepting Joey Carbery’s attempted pass to O’Loughlin.
Nacewa knocked over the extras as O’Brien returned to the field and Leinster had pilfered a half-time lead based on much sounder defence in that second quarter as Pat Lam brought on Finlay Bealham to shore up his creaking scrum.
He was prominent as Connacht launched a last-ditch assault of sustained pressure on the Leinster line but old boy Quinn Roux knocked on under pressure from - who else? - Sean O’Brien and it felt like a crucial moment as Lam’s men headed for tea-time empty-handed.
Connacht had won their last two matches against Leinster including last season’s Guinness PRO12 final but had never tallied three successive wins against their neighbours since the two first locked horns in 1931.
Also, they had not been victorious in Dublin since a 26-23 win at Donnybrook in the PRO 12 back in September 2002.
Leinster’s only defeat in the Guinness PRO 12 this season was to Glasgow Warriors in round two and were defending an 18-game run in the PRO 12, including a run of 16 successive victories.
And they had only ever lost twice to a fellow Irish province at the RDS Arena: to Munster in September 2008 and to Ulster in March 2013.
They needed an impact and Aki’s barnstorming 50-metre, zig-zagging run gave it to them but Leinster had the first real try-scoring chance, Adam Byrne breaking the line from his own half, before feeding Jacn Conan whose kick ahead had to be mopped up on the line by former team-mate Cian Kelleher.
It had all started with Ian Nagle’s wonderful take in the air
As Leinster camped close to the line, quick ball allowed Carbery to take the ball to the line on his left from a five-metre scrum, sucking in the defence before the ball was switched, Byrne eventually snaffled the opening try the other, taking Sean Cronin’s horribly wobbly pass to duck in on the right corner in the 51st minute for 14-6.
Connacht’s sequence of four successive wins in all competitions, as well as just one defeat in their last five derby games, was now gravely imperilled.
Leinster were bossing the game now, combing hard running from the impressive Healy and Sean Cronin while Carbery was beginning to conduct with grace; they just needed another score to bank their dominance as Connacht scrambled desperately in defence.
They made do with three with another O’Brien turnover that allowed Nacewa to add his fourth penalty of the evening to stretch his side’s advantage to 17-6 as the hour mark beckoned.
Connacht huffed and puffed but their May day shimmering sunshine rugby was constantly shattered by the growing influence of Stuart Lancaster’s defensive input.
With four minutes left Barry Daly, starting his first senior game for the province, scored his first try just a few months after impressing on trial; he was playing club rugby this time last season. The game was up. Soon after Nacewa converted for 24-6, so was the time.
Shane Delahunt’s late try was little consolation.
Leinster - I Nacewa capt; A Byrne (R Byrne 76), R O'Loughlin (R Kearney 64), N Reid, B Daly; J Carbery, J Gibson-Park; C Healy (P Dooley 59), S Cronin (J Tracy 59), M Ross (M Bent 59); M Kearney (M McCarthy 46), I Nagle; D Leavy, S O'Brien (J van der Flier 67), J Conan.
Connacht - T O'Halloran; N Adeolokun, P Robb, C Ronaldson (B Aki 19), C Kelleher (S Ili 70); J Carty, K Marmion (C Blade 77); JP Cooney (F Bealham 38), D Heffernan (S Delahunt 59), C Carey (D Robertson-McCoy 54); Q Roux (J Cannon 59), A Browne; S O'Brien (E McKeon 54), J Heenan, J Muldoon capt.
Referee: J Lacey (IRFU)