There is a saying in sport ‘that you have to lose one, to win one’. Connacht obviously paid little heed to this analogy as they comfortably defeated Leinster 20-10 in an exciting Pro 12 final encounter at Murrayfield with a performance which oozed class, skill and has raised the bar set by Glasgow Warriors last season in terms of how NH teams should play the game with dynamic ball carrying, well executed supporting runs for the player with ball in hand and a relentless appetite for work in the breakdown whether with ball or not.
Leinster can have no arguments with this final encounter. They were comprehensively beaten in all facets of play. Nacewa was badly missed as Connacht exposed massive issues in the outside channel defense aided by a clearly not fit Rob Kearney at full back who was culpable for the opening try. Nacewa’s ability to create line breaks from nothing were also missed as Leinster back three struggled to get into the game as Connacht’s fast upfront in your face defense caused confusion in the Leinster ranks where supporting runners were indecisive at best with their running lines to allow Sexton to launch the decisive pass to the likes of Ben Teo.
Leo Cullen will also rue the absence of giant Devin Toner. His influence in the Leinster pack (calling the lineout set piece) has resulted in reliable ball possession. Toner’s absence resulted in Mick Kearney being handed the responsibility of calling the line but to be frank, the set piece struggled from the first whistle. Strauss struggled to find his jumpers and Dillane and Muldowney were disrupting Leinster ball so much so that Strauss was hauled off on forty-two minutes and Mick Kearney was already on the bench due to injury. Ross Molony was faced with the unenviable task of trying to manage the lineout set-piece and while it improved when Sean Cronin came on, the damage had being done.
It was a rather cagey opening first fifteen minutes to this final contest. Both teams focused on settling into the contest, not allowing their opponent any scoring opportunity. The cautious nature of this final was then smashed on fifteen minutes when Matt Healy (former Lansdowne player) receiving the ball deep in Connacht territory. As so many times during this encounter, Healy identified defensive mismatches to exploit his electrifying pace. A game line break of thirty meters ensued and suddenly Leinster were on the back foot. A swift ruck clearout later and the ball was passed to O’Halloran who stealthy identified confusion in the defensive cover between Kearney and Heaslip who was looking at Connacht players out wide. Kearney’s lack of match fitness was exploited to the full and O’Halloran strode past the Ireland full-back and scored for the decisive opening try.
McGinty hit the extras but it was the second try of the afternoon which encapsulated all that has being good from Connacht this season. The offloading game which Pat Lam has religiously implemented since taking over at the club was seen to full effect. Aki’s deft pass even though not going initially to Marmion first time round had drawn the Leinster defense enough to allow Niyi Adelokun, a player plying his rugby with Trinity College only two years ago with space out wide. Credit to Nigel Carolan who recommended the player to Connacht and the Nigerian born winger has taken his opportunity with both hands. The try was superbly executed. Adelokun identifying space behind Reddan put a deft kick behind the scrum half, winning the 50/50 possession battle and touchdown. An incredible score and one which showed the ambition and super skill set possessed by the men from Connacht.
Even though AJ McGinty did not kick the extras, Connacht were now in the mood and a penalty was superbly converted by McGinty to give the men in green 15-0 up at the break. Leinster were like a fighter with one knee on the floor and a standing count being applied. Nothing was going right. Sexton and Ringrose defensively were having a torrid evening, constantly being targeted by Connacht in attacking plays and as a result easy game line yards being created. Ringrose was given a lesson in attacking and defensive play by Aki who was a man on a mission. His tackle count and work rate around the fringes coupled with ball carries which provided momentum and go forward ball were a joy to watch. Henshaw provided Aki the the platform to shine with a professional display; defensive solid throughout, constantly barking out orders to his team mates to get into position and was excellent in ball carries and offload game.
The second half saw the inevitable Leinster response. Leo Cullen losing patience with Strauss on the set-piece and introducing Sean Cronin whose dynamic ball carrying had early positive results. Mike Ross struggling with Connacht’s tempo was also hauled off. An early penalty award for Leinster was all to show for a sustained period of pressure as Connacht were resolute defensively. Each Connacht player putting their bodies on the line and with the likes of Muldoon having an epic performance in the breakdown and fringes, Leinster were losing this battle despite the best efforts of Jamie Heaslip.
The final nail in the coffin was applied by Connacht just after the fifty minute mark, a period of play which forced Leinster’s defensive to go deep into the reserves as Connacht moved their opposition from one side of the pitch to the other. Leinster’s outside channel defensive vulnerabilities eventually created the gap for McGinty to dink a gorgeous drubber kick for Matt Healy to collect and touchdown. It was an emphatic try; emphatic setup work, emphatic response to Leinster’s early second half response.
20-3 and Leinster were handed a lifeline when Sean Cronin went over just into the final quarter. The try was booed by Connacht fans as O’Halloran came off second best in a 50/50 tackle. The game on another day could have being stopped to allow medical attention to come on for a head injury but Nigel Owens continued to allow play to proceed resulting Cronin going over unopposed as Connacht were unable to cope with the player loss. Sexton who continued to try unlock the Connacht defense albeit taking massive hits from the likes of Muldoon and Aki tagged on the extras and the deficit was down to ten points.
However, Connacht reacted in the best possible way and won two quick penalties from scrum set-piece infringments from Leinster. Despite Connacht’s two scrum halves off the pitch, Matt Healy and AJ McGinty continued to execute the game plan with efficiency. McGinty in particular catching the eye with an impressive performance. His kicking out of hand was sublime throughout and his relieving kicks into touch in that last quarter drew the sting out of the Leinster challenge. The last ten minutes were a procession as Connacht and Leinster emptied their benches to give players a chance to sample the final atmosphere.
Connacht finished the game on the front foot and were unlucky not to add to their score. McCartney unlucky not to go over only for a sensational last ditch tackle from Sexton with Rob Kearney again floundering. The team who have created the most intriguing story in the league this season were champions. The team who have entertained the league with their expansive style of game reaped the ultimate rewards. It is a triumph for Pat Lam, a magnificent coaching performance in the last two years. The rugby ball was called a friend to the players by Lam on his first day with the players and the players have embraced the philosophy. Serious ambitions and plans are now laid for Connacht. The fan base is energized and it all points to Connacht to grow from strength to strength next season and beyond. Congratulations Connacht, fully deserved.
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