Shadow Leinster side spoil John Muldoon's 300th game in thriller with Connacht
Connacht 24 Leinster 37
A shadow Leinster side emerged from a thrilling see-saw contest with the bonus-point win that regains them their stranglehold on top spot in the Guinness PRO 12 on a day when an all-Irish final in the Aviva at the end of May moved a step closer.
Two early tries from Adam Byrne and Zane Kirchner gave Leinster an early commanding lead but they were pegged back by the enterprising champions, reprising some of the style that won them this title against Leinster’s first string side last May.
A Danie Poolman try and Craig Ronaldson’s boot got them within a point, 20-19, at half-time - Rory O’Loughlin responding for the visitors.
But although Dave Heffernan’s try edged them ahead, Leinster were ultimately more clinical, pouncing on errors to finish strongly with Barry Daly and Rhys Ruddock adding late tries as the visitors finished with a flourish.
Connacht deserved a bonus themselves but, a bit like much of their season, they fell well short.
Connacht were given the first early fillip when Jake Heenan’s crunching tackle on Cian Healy created a poach for his side and Craig Ronaldson slotted the resultant penalty after just 90 seconds.
Leinster responded almost immediately; some fine off-loading tight to the right-hand touchline, from Ross Byrne to Rhys Ruddock, then Adam Byrne, brilliantly keeping the ball alive, allowing James Tracy to set up a ruck from which Connacht committed their first offence of the day.
Leinster went to the corner, mauled briefly, before moving the ball inside and then back again, a sweeping pass from Noel Reid skipping to Byrne who flicked the scoring return pass inside to Zane Kirchner.
The howls of the home crowd decreed that referee Ian Ritchie consulted the TMO briefly as Ross Byrne attempted a quick conversion; his haste was unnecessary as the 7th minute touchdown was awarded.
Allowed more time, Byrne seemed to have too much and scuffed his kick.
Connacht were continuing to win the breakdown battle and, from another pilfer on the half-way line, they threatened their next advance only to find themselves beneath their own posts seconds later.
As they switched the play left after one phase right, Leinster read the screened pass from Ronaldson, Byrne almost surprised with the fact that the home side allowed him to do so, and galloped away from the intended recipient, Tiernan O’Halloran, to dot down for the second try after just 14 minutes.
This time, Ross Byrne would make no mistake with the conversion to give his side a 12-3 lead.
Connacht’s work on the ground, rather than above it, was keeping them in the contest as a smashing tackle from Andrew Browne forced another penalty, which Ronaldson kicked for 6-12.
Now they began to find their feet, and dance, too; another turnover in their own half creating the possession and some decent continuity, featuring two wonderful off-loads from Dave Heffernan, eventually set Tiernan O’Halloran free for a blistering run outside the cover on the right.
Browne followed up to keep the loose ball alive and, as Connacht recycled a couple of times, Jack Carty spotted a gaping dog-leg in the Leinster defence out wide and a perfectly weighted floating kick found Danie Poolman’s bread basket.
Ronaldson converted to give his side the lead for the first time, 13-12, before Leinster responded with a penalty of their own in the 20th minute as Connacht conceded a penalty in front of the posts; more wonderful work in the build-up from Noel Reid, off-loading to Ross Molony.
Connacht restored the advantage again nine minutes later, unwittingly after trying to slow the game down with a kick to the corner, from where they spoiled the Leinster lineout before Bundee Aki then won a turnover - Heenan continuing to be an absolute menace on the floor - as the visitors recklessly tried to run the ball out from their 22.
Ronaldson nailed another kick as his side edged 16-15 ahead after a half-hour of a quite frantic contest and now Leinster were spilling the ball where earlier they had seemed so certain.
So it was unusual for a mistake to allow them regain their lead for a second time; first, a sloppy lineout and then falling asleep as Luke McGrath sniped from a ruck to advance the ambush.
Feigning to deliberately slam then retreating Connacht back-row replacement Sean O’Brien, the ball rebounded to him and McGrath then danced through the cover 25 yards out, skipping past another replacement before being stopped in his tracks by Kieran Marmion.
The Ireland international would be the third casualty of the half as he succumbed, briefly, to his consequent injury.
He trooped off as Byrne prepared his third conversion of the half, Rory O’Loughlin having squeezed into the left corner from the omnipresent Josh Van der Flier’s pass, having himself been found by wondrous looping pass from Byrne.
So Leinster led again, albeit Byrne missed the difficult kick into the stiff onshore breeze, 20-16.
Connacht had the last word of a busy half, winning a fifth penalty on the ground, Ronaldson’s penalty leaving the bare minimum between the sides as they breathlessly broke for tea.
The second-half maintained its tempo but also the casualty rate with Leinster now affected, poor Dave Kearney, only recently returned, being led from the field after a sickening collision.
Connacht stuck to their attacking principles and deservedly eked reward with a thrilling try; begin with a precise series of simple passes through five sets of hands on halfway.
Then O’Halloran turned on his heels, raising his hands despite twin tackles from replacements Barry Daly and James Tracy, allowing Marmion to bust free before he was busted by McGrath.
Sweet, but momentary revenge; Connacht worked the ball left and Carty’s skipped pass bounced into the grateful hands of Heffernan who gleefully pounced for the 49th minute score.
Now 24-20 ahead, the game may have required calm but it refused, gaspingly, to obey.
Just three minutes later, Connacht spilled the ball on half-way as they attempted another audacious attack, allowing Molony to break.
Leinster ploughed a few direct furrows which got them close and closer to the line until Rhys Ruddock bundled himself and ball over it. Byrne converted and Leinster had regained their lead, 27-24.
Next thing you knew, Connacht were running the ball from their own line; a magnificent expression of their belief to maintain their philosophy to entertain.
Make a mistake. Move on. Despite this bruising season, Connacht’s intentions have never for one moment escaped them and 8,090 of their faithful acclaimed them with all their hearts.
They would become victims of their ambition; Denis Buckley’s kamikaze pass, as he was assailed by a rushing Sean Cronin, was hacked on at half-way by Barry Daly and he followed up in the open prairie for an easy score to make it 34-24.
Ten points ahead with ten points left, the game was up. Byrne stroked a late penalty; not a 300th appearance for Connacht legend John Muldoon to remember fondly.
Connacht: T O'Halloran; N Adeolokun (E Griffin 12), B Aki, C Ronaldson; D Poolman, J Carty (S Crosbie 71), K Marmion (C Blade 37-40 blood; 74); D Buckley (JP Cooney 70), D Heffernan (S Delahunt 65), F Bealham (D Robertson-McKay 70), Q Roux (S O’Brien 21), A Browne, E McKeon N Dawai HT), J Heenan, J Muldoon (capt).
Leinster: Z Kirchner; A Byrne, R O'Loughlin (T Daly 74), N Reid, D Kearney (B Daly 48); R Byrne, L McGrath (N McCarthy 74); C Healy (P Dooley 52), J Tracy (S Cronin 52), M Ross (M Bent 52), R Molony, H Triggs (I Nagle 62), D Ryan, J van der Flier, R Ruddock capt (P Timmins 74).
Ref: I Davies (WRU)