Kick in teeth for Connacht as Leinster let off the hook
CONNACHT 13 LEINSTER 15
And so the fates design ever more ways for Connacht's luckless losing run to continue. There will surely be few more dramatic.
When Miah Nikora swung his left boot at a 30-yard effort for a drop-goal 90 seconds into injury-time, referee John Lacey's first action was to point to the heavens.
The initial reaction of many in the 6,582 attendance was also to gesture upwards in acclamation, whooping and hollering away the frustration racked up by 11 successive defeats.
Alas, Lacey's call was to another higher power -- television match official Dermot Moloney -- who only confirmed what the collective groans of those watching the big-screen replay through their fingers had already acknowledged.
For Nikora's kick had fallen agonisingly short -- perhaps he should have edged his pack closer to the posts to offset the gusting wind -- and Leinster slipped out of town with all four points.
Deflation once again.
"If it wasn't on s***ging TV, we probably would have won the game," lamented Connacht coach Eric Elwood, who had been one of the first to dance wildly around the dog track upon seeing Lacey's initial signal.
Leinster coach Joe Schmidt had a better viewpoint from his halfway ground-level perch, reckoning that the kick was always falling short, thus conceding his opposite number's point that Connacht should have edged closer to Leinster's line.
It was perhaps apt that Nikora's late miss should seal Connacht's fate; their kicking was awry all evening, from opening minute to last.
Their five failed attempts, numbering two penalties from Matthew Jarvis, two missed conversions and that late agonising dropped goal effort from Nikora, contrasted sharply with the European champions' clinical efficiency.
In sharp contrast, Isa Nacewa nailed all five of his kicks, including a crucial 63rd-minute attempt while Isaac Boss was undergoing the first of two 10-minute sin-bin spells his side endured in a desperately frantic final quarter.
Ian Madigan, deputising quite efficiently at No 9 in Boss' stead, manoeuvred Leinster into penalty position and Nacewa coolly kicked his three-pointer with the aid of a wind he had negotiated quite superbly on three occasions in the first-half when it had fiercely gusted into his face.
That seemed to have countered the Connacht comeback, launched minutes earlier by the opening try from the excellent Tiernan O'Halloran shortly after Brian Tuohy was stretchered off with a broken leg.
From a position where they had been 12-3 down in the 50th minute, Connacht were now right on Leinster's heels and playing more directly, after Frank Murphy added more brio to their game once Paul O'Donohue had been summarily hooked after a poor display.
Even when that fifth kick from Nacewa pushed Leinster out to 15-8, Connacht refused to be cowed, buoyed by the quite magnificent Mike McCarthy.
When captain Leo Cullen was correctly binned for turning a Connacht five-metre line-out into a house of cards by barging into Brett Wilkinson, the westerners sensed blood.
Ethienne Reynecke burrowed over after peeling off the back of a maul but, when Nikora slipped on addressing the relatively easy conversion attempt to tie it up, and John Muldoon knocked on a simple gather from the subsequent restart, a dog-eared familiarity began to attach itself to the tale.
In truth, the home side had been making life difficult for themselves from the opening stanza.
They needed a good start. Fortunately, their eagerness and physicality ensured that they got that. Unfortunately, their profligacy ensured that they couldn't profit from it.
Such are the vicissitudes of sporting life for a team desperately seeking redemption.
Niall O'Connor had succumbed to a late back injury but had been arguably lucky to retain his place, given the clamour for change at half-back.
Thus, O'Donohue also came in for Murphy at nine but, to paraphrase the festive Morecambe and Wise gag, Connacht may have picked the right half-back combination, but not necessarily for the right occasion.
Despite benefiting from the sideways rain and familiar gale in a blistering, uninterrupted three-minute opening passage of play, O'Connor's replacement, Jarvis, pulled an early penalty attempt wide.
Then, after the increasingly impressive Eoin Griffin burst from the midfield morass, neat transfers from George Naoupu, Mike McCarthy and Johnny O'Connor, the westerners conducted a five-two overlap.
Sadly, they conspired to butcher the chance, with the otherwise excellent O'Halloran failing to find his captain, Gavin Duffy, for what would have been a run-in.
That Jarvis then missed another attempted three-pointer heightened the angst.
Leinster were let off the hook and, playing on the edge of offside all day long, were content to soak up the pressure and play for territory.
When there, they barely demonstrated any vaulting ambition, instead rumbling cohesively before an inevitable transgression provided them with, on three separate occasions, a scoreable penalty.
It had taken them all of 17 minutes to visit the home side's scoring zone.
Thus they led 9-3 into a typical Galway gale by half-time while Connacht, instanced by one occasion where they turned over possession and coughed up 60 metres, were unable to provide any cohesion despite bright individual offerings.
The fact that they were still chasing the win in the final death-throes speaks of their relentless courage in the face of adversity, but also their profligacy, having twice benefited from an extra man, not to mention outscoring the winners 2-0 on tries.
The magnificent McCarthy was forced to hold up one of a clutch of erstwhile Sportsground favourites wearing opposition colours, Sean Cronin, as Leinster sought to twist the knife in those final minutes.
Sadly, the blade would be plunged through broken hearts soon enough. That few of us could tell the European champions from the 12-in-a-row losers was scant consolation for the distraught locals.
Connacht -- G Duffy (capt); B Tuohy (H Fa'afili 56), E Griffin (M Nikora 66), K Tonetti, T O'Halloran; M Jarvis, P O'Donohoe (F Murphy 55); B Wilkinson, A Flavin (E Reynecke 56), R Loughney (D Rogers 56), G Naoupu, M McCarthy, M Kearney, J O'Connor, J Muldoon.
Leinster -- I Nacewa; D Kearney, E O'Malley, B Macken, A Conway; I Madigan, I Boss; J McGrath (H van der Merwe 63), R Strauss (S Cronin 60), J Hagan (N White 56), L Cullen (capt), D Browne (D Toner 70), R Ruddock, S Jennings, L Auva'a.
Ref -- J Lacey (IRFU).