Leinster deliver late triple whammy to break Connacht hearts in Christmas cracker
Leinster 33 Connacht 29
The 16 long years of hurt will go on and this last-gasp defeat will be one of the toughest to take as Leinster scored with the last play of the game to condemn Connacht to more heartbreak in the capital.
Chasing a first win in Dublin since 2002, Connacht put themselves within touching distance of ending that barren run, but Leinster showed just why they are champions with a stunning late comeback that saw them score three converted tries in the final 10 minutes.
The Westerners have waited long enough for their moment and this really should have been it as they blew a 17-point second half lead in front of a crowd of 16,790, who were treated to a Christmas cracker at the RDS.
Connacht were well in control of proceedings until they took their foot off the pedal and paid the ultimate price.
A much-changed Leinster side were not at their best, but they still managed to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat in remarkable fashion.
Late tries from Sean Cronin, Dan Leavy and Andrew Porter with the clock well into the red sent the home crowd into raptures as they were handed an early present.
With one eye on the game against Munster next weekend, Leo Cullen opted to rest the majority of his front-line internationals and while the head coach will have been disappointed by the sluggishness of some of those who were handed an opportunity to impress, he will have been delighted by the manner in which they fought back.
First half tries from Cian Kelleher, Darragh Leader and a sensational effort from Carty left Connacht in control at half-time before they wrapped up the bonus point through Caolin Blade shortly after the restart.
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Nigel Carolan has rightly come in for plenty of praise this season and there was once again plenty to like about the shape of the Connacht attack with Carty wonderfully pulling the strings.
Connacht had already lost David Horwitz to injury shortly before kick-off before Tiernan O'Halloran pulled up in the warm-up and was replaced by Bundee Ak, as Connacht were forced to reshuffle their back-line.
The late changes barely disrupted the visitors and their bright start was rewarded after five minutes when Kelleher came back to haunt his former club with a brilliantly worked try off a set-piece move.
Carolan's fingerprints were all over it as Aki stepped into first receiver and found Carty, who in turn fed Leader. The searing lines of running had Leinster in all kinds of trouble and Leader delayed his pass just long enough to put the pacy Kelleher over in the corner.
It took Leinster just six minutes to hit back however. Denis Buckley missed a poor tackle on Mick Kearney and once the lock broke the gain line, Connacht were scrambling in defence.
Jamison Gibson-Park made a sniping break around the fringe of the ruck and then laid it on a plate for O'Brien. It was the scrum-half's 12th try assist of the season as he extended his lead at the top of that particular chart.
Ross Byrne added the extras for a 7-5 and just as you felt that Leinster would kick on, Connacht wrested back the momentum.
Wexford native Paul O'Boyle forced a brilliant turnover deep inside his own 22 and that set the platform for the Westerners to go and score their second try of the evening on 23 minutes.
Again it came off a set-piece as Aki made the hard yards through the middle before linking with the outstanding Tom Farrell.
The former Leinster centre threw a sumptuous offload for Leader, who turned on the after-burners, which left Adam Byrne on his back-side.
This time Carty was on target with the conversion as his side regained the lead before the out-half took centre stage.
Carty is enjoying an excellent season and the confidence with which he is currently playing with was epitomised by his moment of magic six minutes before the break.
The Connacht pivot spotted a gap in behind the Leinster defence and he didn't think twice about delicately dinking the ball over the head of the onrushing Bryan Byrne.
Carty brilliantly regathered the ball and ran underneath the sticks after a stunning individual try. He then put the icing on the cake by knocking over the conversion.
The 26-year old almost brought crashing back down to reality a minute later when Caelan Doris charged down his attempted clearance kick in front of his own posts but Carty got back in the nick of time to dot the ball down ahead of the No 8.
The traveling support breathed a collective sigh of relief as their side just about managed to held on to their 19-7 lead at the break.
It was the Leinster fans who were on the feet four minutes after the restart however, as the home side came flying out of the traps.
They hammered away at the Connacht defence until Mick Kearney eventually breached it with was his first try for the club.
The gap was suddenly back to seven points, but not for long as Carty grabbed the game by the scruff of the neck once again.
This time he went around a soft Rhys Ruddock tackle and then sold Dan Leavy a dummy, which he bought all ends up.
With Aki on his right and Blade on his left, Carty chose the right option in the scrum-half as he collected his perfectly-weighted pass and showed a clean pair of heels to scamper clear under the posts.
Carty's extras pushed Connacht into a 26-12 lead as they wrapped up the bonus point by the 48th minute.
Andy Friend's men had every right to feel aggrieved shortly before the hour mark when Rory O'Loughlin dangerously cleared Blade out of a ruck. The scrum-half landed on his back and referee deemed it worthy of a penalty only with the Connacht fans crying out for a yellow card.
Cullen wasted little time in looking to his bench, but it was Connacht who continued in the ascendancy. Boyle won another turnover penalty, which allowed the nerveless Carty to step up and slot the resulting kick from all of 45 metres.
With the clock very much against them, Leinster refused to throw in the towel and when Sean Cronin scoring off a powerful rolling maul and Byrne converted, it left Leinster 29-19 behind with 10 minutes remaining.
The home crowd suddenly started to believe again and two minutes later when Leavy went over for a brilliant team try that began with a Ciaran Frawley break from deep inside Leinster half, they had every reason to think that the comeback was on. Byrne was again on target with the conversion to make it a three-point game.
A jaded looking Connacht were on the ropes and Leinster delivered the knockout blow on 83 minutes. They patiently went through 40 phases, before Porter powered his way over from close range.
The Connacht players feel to the ground in despair and as Byrne knocked over the conversion, the Westerners were once again left to rue what might have been.
Leinster – H Keenan (C Frawley 38); A Byrne, R O'Loughlin, C O'Brien (N Reid 64), D Kearney; R Byrne, J Gibson-Park; P Dooley (E Byrne, 49), B Byrne (S Cronin, 49), M Bent (A Porter h-t); M Kearney (R Molony 49), S Fardy; R Ruddock (capt), D Leavy, C Doris (M Deegan 58).
Connacht – D Leader; C Kelleher, T Farrell, B Aki, D Leader; J Carty, C Blade (J Mitchell 13-20); D Buckley (P McCabe 55), T McCartney (S Delahunt 57), F Bealham (D Robertson McCoy 38); U Dillane, G Thornbury (J Cannon, 74); J Butler (capt), C Fainga’a, P Boyle ( E Masterson 67)
REF: G Clancy (IRFU)