Saturday 18 November 2017

Leinster's Zane Kirchner pounces to deny Connacht win

Leinster 21 Connacht 11

Zane Kirchner, Leinster, is tackled by Matt Healy, Connacht
Zane Kirchner, Leinster, is tackled by Matt Healy, Connacht
Luke Fitzgerald, Leinster, is tackled by Robbie Henshaw, Connacht
Leinster head coach Matt O'Connor before the game
Bundee Aki, Connacht, is tackled by Sean Cronin, left, and Jack McGrath, Leinster
Kieran Marmion, Connacht, is tackled by Jordi Murphy, Leinster
Maks Van Dyk, Leinster
Leinster's Jamie Heaslip following his side's victory.
Noel Reid, Leinster
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

The final moments of this derby will probably haunt Pat Lam's Christmas dreams as his side left Dublin pointless and ruing a missed opportunity.

The Westerners held all the aces coming into last night's interpro, but an atrocious start meant they were playing catch-up all night and a shocking finish denied them a hard-earned bonus point.

For Leinster, this was an improved performance and a good start to their run of three derbies in a row.

Their midfield combination of Noel Reid and Luke Fitzgerald looked like the answer to their backline issues and things were only so close at the end because their temporary signing from South Africa, Maks Van Dyk, had a nightmare introduction and almost cost his side dear.

They managed the first-half well despite playing into a viciously-cold wind and led by two points at the break despite a strong Connacht finish to the half that left them down to 14 men after half-time.

Despite the man disadvantage, they used all their experience to control possession and territory after the break and, while they have room to improve, the performance will please beleaguered coach Matt O'Connor who earned a week's respite. Connacht's discipline cost them dear in the early stages as they conceded a succession of penalties that eventually led to Shane Jennings touching down on his return from injury.

An early Bundee Aki knock-on handed the momentum to the hosts who won a penalty from the resultant scrum, which Jimmy Gopperth kicked to touch. Leinster appeared to be going nowhere when Robbie Henshaw was harshly adjudged to have played the ball off his feet and Gopperth bought more territory.

From there, they mauled and went with Robbie Henshaw needing a fine tackle to halt Luke Fitzgerald out wide, but advantage was being played and the New Zealander put his pack on the five metre line.

It took three attempts and more penalties, but eventually the maul got over. Aly Muldowney's early hit while Leinster's lifters were holding Kane Douglas up was one too many for referee Ian Davies and the visitors were under the cosh.

Strong

When they needed experience, their veteran All Black Mils Muliaina dropped two high balls in the strong wind and by the time Muldowney returned, his side were 8-0 down thanks to a Gopperth penalty.

Uncharacteristic errors were the order of the day and Jamie Heaslip gave the visitors a foothold when he knocked on the kick-off and Connacht attacked well through Aki, Henshaw and George Naoupu.

He was stopped short by a Douglas poach that looked suspiciously from the side, but Matt Healy took the game back to Leinster and eventually the discipline slipped. However, Jack Carty missed his penalty and allowed the hosts off the hook. Restored to the Leinster midfield, Reid was adding something different to the attack and he threatened again by slipping between Kieran Marmion and Henshaw to run into Connacht territory, but Fitzgerald's cut out pass wasn't enough for Zane Kirchner to break free and he was bundled into touch.

Pat Lam's side executed their exit well and began to play. With the penalty pendulum swinging firmly in their favour and their aggressive defence forcing Leinster errors, they established field position and spent the last 10 minutes of the half deep in home territory. They left with six points through Carty penalties, but asked a succession of questions through some clever play and might have had a try if their out-half had put less oomph in his cross-kick to Danie Poolman who put a foot in touch when touching down.

Back Connacht came from the 22 drop-out through Marmion and they forced the final penalty of the half under the posts.

Davies sent Tadhg Furlong to the sin bin as Carty reduced the deficit, giving Connacht a fillip for the dressing room as they contemplated facing into the elements on the resumption.

They got off to a bad start when Naoupu played a knock-on from an offside position and Gopperth nailed the 45 metre penalty and Connacht found themselves camped in their own half again after the restart when Poolman was turned over and Isaac Boss cleverly pinned them back.

Connacht were having to play from well inside their half and their clearing kicks were getting them nowhere.

One Marmion box-kick handed Leinster a five-metre lineout and while the men in green stood firm at the maul, replacement Willie Faloon conceded a silly penalty that allowed Gopperth stretch the lead to eight points.

At least the kick-off allowed Connacht out of their half and, when they got the ball, Aki carried hard and Douglas conceded a penalty that brought them the chance.

Back and forth they went, but Leinster looked comfortable until Carty cleverly grubber-kicked in behind and the chasing Matt Healy and Quinn Roux forced Rob Kearney to concede a five-metre scrum. The set-piece held firm, but Fitzgerald stripped the ball from Healy's grasp as he carried hard and the hosts escaped.

Connacht put pressure on the scrum and stayed in the 22, but their line-out maul couldn't get going and Heaslip forced a turnover. As the game loosened up, the visitors' error count mounted dangerously and a Naoupu knock-on on his 22 line was almost punished by Boss who was held up over the line after strong work from Dave Kearney and Sean Cronin.

New signing Van Dyk collapsed the scrum on his first involvement and, when Carty cleared, another collapse allowed the fly-half nudge his side into the opposition half.

The South African then conceded a penalty in open play, allowing Carty find touch. Toner collapsed the maul and saw yellow, so Connacht went again and from Ultan Dillane's take, Naoupu forced his way over.

Leinster went into shut-down mode from there, forcing a penalty which Gopperth opted to kick to the corner, but he didn't quite make it as Healy lept to keep it in only for Kirchner to beat Darragh Leader to the ball and deny the visitors the bonus point.

Their trip to Ravenhill looks a daunting one now as they look to continue their early-season charge.

LEINSTER - R Kearney; Z Kirchner, L Fitzgerald, N Reid (G D;Arcy 80), D Kearney; J Gopperth, I Boss (L McGrath 80); M Bent (J McGrath 53), A Dundon (S Cronin 56), T Furlong (M Van Dyk 65); D Toner, K Douglas; K McLaughlin (J Conan 47), S Jennings (J Murphy 63), J Heaslip (capt).

CONNACHT - M Muliaina (D Leader 63); D Poolman, R Henshaw, B Aki (C Ronaldson 76), M Healy; J Carty, K Marmion (C Blade 73); D Buckley (R Loughney 71), T McCartney, R Ah You; Q Roux, A Muldowney (U Dillane 68); J Muldoon (capt), E McKeon (W Faloon 47-53, 68), G Naoupu.

REF - I Davies (Wales)

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