Thursday 18 October 2018

Perfect finale caps fairy tale season for Connacht

Connacht 20 Leinster 10

Connacht celebrate their resounding Pro12 victory. Photo: Sportsfile
Connacht celebrate their resounding Pro12 victory. Photo: Sportsfile
Connacht's Tiernan O'Halloran of Connacht scores his side's first try. Photo: Sportsfile
Rhys Ruddock is tackled by Jake Heenan, below, and John Muldoon. Photo: Sportsfile
Matt Healy of Connacht scores his side's third try. Photo: Sportsfile
Zane Kirchner of Leinster goes over for a try which was subsequently disallowed. Photo: Sportsfile
Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

The last time Leinster played a final in this stadium it was a breakthrough day for them, beating Leicester in the 2009 Heineken Cup showdown. Soon enough they would be the dominant force across the six nations who compete in that competition.

Yesterday's experience was altogether different for them. If 2009 had been the beginning of a new era for them then 2016 has been confirmation that their position on the domestic front has run out of road as well. Connacht are now parked out front.

It has been the rolling story of the season: could they get to Christmas still on the front foot; could they qualify for Europe; could they make the top four; could they secure a home semi-final? Yes to all of them, and yes to their position now as top dogs.

Throughout they have played the best rugby, even when it would have been easier to do the more conservative thing. Their reward came with this stunning effort, a historic day and a game changer for rugby in the west of Ireland.

By the end of the first quarter a few important points had been made: a handful of Leinster players were well off the pace, none more so than Rob Kearney, who is playing catch-up after injury and looked that way. And virtually every one of the Connacht team were exactly on the money. By the end their back three of Tiernan O'Halloran, Niyi Adeolokun and Matt Healy had all touched down, and how appropriate that was, for they have dominated all season.

In midfield Robbie Henshaw - playing his last game for the province - and Bundee Aki were immense, and at halfback both AJ MacGinty and Kieran Marmion were always sniffing for something. MacGinty's kicking game is well short of what's required at this level, but his attitude is first class.

The only area where Connacht struggled on the day was at the scrum, and it was late enough when that began to cost them. Meantime, they had huge performers in Ultan Dillane, who is on course for the Lions next summer, Tom McCartney and man of the match John Muldoon. It was a Hollywood-esque end to the season for the captain. Having been around for more dark days than any man could reasonably be asked to endure, it was great to see him leading the side when at last they had some sun on their backs.

In glorious conditions and in a stadium roughly half full, Connacht looked like a team who came to enjoy themselves. All week Pat Lam had spoken about how yesterday was a pay-off for the group as a whole, and that everyone involved was going to milk the occasion for all it was worth.

There was no party look to their commitment though. They had to weather a rough passage early on when Leinster enjoyed a lot of ball, but Muldoon's side responded quickly, and never lost their shape. What they needed most was an early return for their efforts, and it came on 13 minutes from the brilliant O'Halloran.

The time to cap a stellar season is in the final, and his try - started by a good counter from Healy and then featuring the full-back turning his opposite number inside out - was perfect, including MacGinty's conversion for a seven-point lead.

Within 10 minutes they were over again, this time through Adeolokun. After a really good combination between O'Halloran, Aki and Marmion in midfield, the wing chipped Luke Fitzgerald and got a handy enough hack on the ball to win the race against Eoin Reddan.

MacGinty missed the conversion but when he kicked a penalty for a 15-0 lead on 28 minutes the Leinster supporters - heavily outnumbered in the crowd of 34,055 - didn't know where to look. Their team's lineout was creaking, which was understandable given that Mick Kearney's early departure added to the loss of Devin Toner who pulled out after the death of his father, for whom there was a minute's silence at the start.

By half-time nothing had changed: Connacht were working the ball wide in such a variety of ways that it always put Leinster under pressure. Faced with the prospect of either scoring first in the second half or being beaten out the gate, Johnny Sexton pulled back three points, but just before the hour mark Connacht struck again, this time through Healy, latching on to a perfect grubber by MacGinty after Connacht had battered away at the Leinster line in search of a gap.

So as the last quarter got under way, Connacht were 20-3 ahead, but beginning to tire. Leinster almost cut the gap, only for referee Nigel Owens to call back a Zane Kirchner try for a forward pass from Sexton.

Connacht then went through a ropey spell when, with O'Halloran on the ground for treatment, Leinster took advantage of their numerical superiority to put Sean Cronin over for a good try.

However, Connacht lifted themselves again and managed to play the game out deep in enemy territory. It was a great win for a remarkable group.

Scorers - Connacht: O'Halloran, Adeolokun, Healy try each; MacGinty pen, con; Leinster: Cronin try, Sexton pen, con.
Leinster: R Kearney (Z Kirchner 61); D Kearney (I Madigan 73), G Ringrose, B Te'o, L Fitzgerald; J Sexton, E Reddan (L McGrath 58); J McGrath, R Strauss (S Cronin 42), M Ross (T Furlong 42), R Molony (J Conan 63), M Kearney (H Triggs 17), R Ruddock, J Heaslip (capt), J Murphy
Connacht: T O'Halloran (S O'Leary 70); N Adeolokun, R Henshaw, B Aki, M Healy; AJ MacGinty, K Marmion (J Cooney 61; P Robb 66); R Loughney (R Ah You 69), T McCartney (D Heffernan 72), F Bealham, U Dillane (A Browne 62), A Muldowney, E McKeon (S O'Brien ht), J Muldoon (capt), J Heenan.
Referee: N Owens (Wales)  

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