Leinster get revenge at the Sportsground as international stars ease past Connacht
Connacht 3 Leinster 20
Easy enough for Leinster in the end. Sometimes you got to send the big boys to a big boys' job.
After the shadow side were pummelled here last April, the champions paid Connacht the ultimate compliment by putting out one of the strongest sides that have ever crossed the Shannon.
And they extracted the ultimate tariff, building on a solid if unspectacular 6-3 half-time lead with a scintillating, jinking Garry Ringrose try just 43 seconds into the second-half, before Sean Cronin sealed the deal before the hour.
Connacht huffed and puffed all day, tackled with gritty honesty, but were incapable of piercing an often impenetrable blue wall, within which Josh van der Flier, enjoying another industrious 80 minute shift, stood tall.
The match, watched by a sold out 8,129, began at a furious pace and rarely relented; often without structure, two flat defences merely encouraged bodies to pummel into each other with racuous regularity.
The steady procession of percussive hits reminded one that the true art of strong tackling can still thrive, as Tom Farrell can readily testify, so too his wide variety of victims, from Josh van der Flier to Joe Tomane.
Playing into a stiff off-shore breeze, Leinster's commitment to putting width on the ball may have made sense but perhaps they might have been wiser to earn the right first.
From the first play, even, Sexton and Tomane worked a loop which snaffled them behind the gain-line, Colby Fainga'a seizing on the prostrate Wallaby to earn Jack Carty a second minute shot at goal.
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He had the wind at his back and, with the three points pocketed, so too did his side.
Leinster still tried to play, but to no avail; Luke McGrath knocking on after a decent break by the lively Jack Conan, before Dave Heffernan smashed the menacing van der Flier.
Three penalty concessions – Cian Healy was done in a scrum during a rare visit to the red zone – and two knock-ons in the opening ten minutes betrayed a tale.
Leinster's star men were fluffing their lines, for now. But their persistence in defence was admirable.
Connacht enjoyed some sustained pressure but a long, 20-phase stage merely meandered along the 22 and Leinster defended it with relative ease; Scott Fardy and Tomane earning a measure of revenge on Fainga'a.
With Leinster reversing the discipline trend, two penalties posted them on the five-metre line; however, Connacht held up the potentially scoring maul and earned a crucial turnover.
Still, the smash hits kept being played on a stunning loop – Farrell on Tomane, Lowe on O'Halloran; there was even a gentle spearing, albeit merely punishable by penalty, as passions ran high on and off the field.
Leinster remained hesitant; Sexton distrusted his boot from long-range but the gambit of playing from touch didn't bring profit either.
McGrath lingered too long at one ruck, allowing Robin Copeland to pounce and burst through to clear more danger as a couple of languid Leinster ruck inspectors leaned on their imaginary spades.
Fifteen minutes after their first attempt, on the half-hour Leinster essayed another effort at a driving maul close in.
Again it was well-defended but Connacht's increasing recidivism – they ended the half with a penalty count of 9-3 – would cost them the three points from Sexton's first shot at goal.
Leinster ended the half questing a breather and, when Finlay Bealham was done in a scrum close to his line, the pressure was ramped up.
Leinster got over the line but couldn't get the ball down. Sexton knocked it over, though, after another penalty and they led 6-3 after an enthralling half of rugby.
It only took them 43 seconds of the second-half to do so, though. Jack Carty punted the restart straight back at Rob Kearney who had the freedom of the tram-lines in front of the Clan Terrace.
Two quick rumbles from the restored O'Brien and Tadhg Furlong back-pedalled the men in green; Luke McGrath found Garry Ringrose and there seemed to be nothing much on in most people's minds.
Not in his,
Shimmying sideways to avoid a bunched defence containing Farrell and his ilk; he scampered five yards to his left and instead located the retreating back-row, through whom he skipped with remarkable ease, leaving him a short sprint to the line. Sexton's extras made it 13-3.
Connacht, as the did in the first-half, struggled for any incision despite their industry; another 20-
phase play which expended a lot of energy without gobbling up any reasonable territory.
The blue wall, as it had done for much of the piece, held decisively firm.
Leinster were in command now and they scored their decisive second touchdown on 57 minutes; Sean Cronin peeled from a back of a driving maul old-school style; Sexton converted for 20-3.
There would be no humiliation this time. Another, defiant defensive set – 21 phases – at once illustrated the relative strengths and weaknesses of the respective sides.
Instead, there was a dose of humility for the home side and some minor shame, too; replacement Doninic Robertson-McCoy barely working up a sweat before being sent off within a minute of his arrival.
His stamping offence was insipid enough; that he chose to unleash his errant boot on the glaringly bright red helmet of Josh van der Flier an exercise in rank inanity.
Connacht - T O'Halloran; C Kelleher, T Farrell, B Aki, N Adeolokun (K Godwin 69); J Carty (C Ronaldson 75), K Marmion (C Blade 62); D Buckley (P McCabe 66), D Heffernan (T McCartney 54), F Bealham (D Robertson-McCoy 68); U Dillane, Q Roux (J Cannon 62); S O'Brien, C Fainga'a (P Boyle 55), R Copeland (F Bealham 73)
Leinster: R Kearney; J Larmour (R O'Loughlin 66), G Ringrose, J Tomane, J Lowe; J Sexton (R Byrne 75), L McGrath (N McCarthy 71); C Healy (E Byrne (57), S Cronin (J Tracy 57), T Furlong (A Porter 57); D Toner (R Moloney 75), S Fardy; R Ruddock (S O'Brien 26), J van der Flier, J Conan.
Referee – Marius Mitrea (FIR)