Rock solid. The only way to describe Leinster’s defence. Connacht were left smashing against it like the green sea against a dark blue cliffs. Connacht 3-20 Leinster.
Leinster took a narrow lead into the half-time break after a difficult, gritty, mistake-ridden first half. Mistakes on both sides, with the scrum again taking most of the spotlight.
Connacht opened the brighter of the two teams, threatening deep into the Leinster half and forcing an early penalty to take a three-point lead. But Leinster dominated possession for the remainder of the half although they had to fight hard for territory.
Playing against a stiff wind they opted to run the ball out of defence multiple times, a tactic that allowed them to control the ball for long periods. Their play in the red zone, however, was less than perfect. Line-out, scrum, and maul were attacked by Connacht with success as was the breakdown area.
So much possession eventually began to tell thirty minutes in and the men in green started to leak penalties all over the pitch. Johnny Sexton spurned an early opportunity to kick at goal; after checking the wind he aimed his kick for the corner. That effort came to nothing, the maul did not get set and Connacht sacked it legally.
He took his second opportunity, this time much closer in and almost in front of the posts. Leinster had the momentum towards the close of the half and with the long awaited return of Sean O’Brien, earlier than planned due to Ruddock’s injury, the blues began to progress.
Luke McGrath seemed to do everything he could to get the ball into the Tullow man’s hands. One notable carry saw O’Brien spot that Kieran Marmion was his prospective tackler, and he put his head down and carried the scrum half ten metres up the pitch.
More penalties allowed Leinster to get a firm foothold in the Connacht twenty-two, and saw the host team warned about repeat infringements. Leinster worked the ball under the posts but were held up. The scrum, a mess all night thanks to an intriguing battle between Healy and Bealham, lead to a central penalty. Johnny Sexton kicked to put Leinster in front 6-3.
Leinster probably would have played through half-time given their dominance at the end of the first half, and they started in the same manner after the break. When Gary Ringrose got the ball at the edge of Connacht’s twenty-two and went on a mazy run, avoiding a solid line of green defenders, and finding a gap around Tadhg Furlong, he broke over the line to score the game’s first try.
Leinster withstood some pressure before breaking out of defence. Sexton began to use the boot and the wind to push the green men back and the penalties began to mount once more.
James Lowe was instrumental in moving the ball up the wing, but it was the forwards who were controlling most of the ball. Several lineout mauls, moved them up the line and then Cronin just about managed to get over the line. Leinster took a seventeen point lead, 3-20, with another converted try.
The Leinster defensive line has got to be seen to be believed. At one point around the three quarter way mark, they defended with such ferocity and line speed that they first forced Connacht back ten meters before turning the ball over. Van der Flier’s line speed is scary.
Lowe was restricted in how much off-loading he could do today, but he got one away that a few passes later got to the wing and the hands of Larmour. He kicked over Adeolokun and raced to regather it, only denied a try by some fantastic goal line defending. Desperation defence form the men in green and they earned some breathing space.
Getting out of their own half was a problem. The wind meant kicking was not ideal. Delane carried most notably for them as they edged forwards against the solid blue wall. Josh van der Flier again notable in leading the defensive line.
A stupid penalty, given away by Sexton for not rolling away from the tackle, got them the break they needed. Marmion breaking through with a quick tap. A high tackle from Conan gave Connacht a penalty and they went for the corner, set the maul, and gave it to the backs to try their luck.
The forwards took over when they got close. The phases built up. Big tackles. Like the sea attacking a cliff, it ebbed and flowed, driven back and surging forward. Andrew Porter brought the attack to an end, clamping on the ball at a ruck, Johnny Sexton having made the stopping tackle, bringing his tackle count to ten.
Foul play was spotted, a nasty stamp to van der Flier’s head. Red card was my gut instinct — it doesn’t matter how much force was used, it had to be a red. Stupid play by the replacement prop, McCoy, in an otherwise friendly enough game. Rush of blood, but unforgivable for a professional.
Game over as far as Connacht were concerned but now the chase for the bonus point began in earnest for Leinster. A penalty inside the twenty-two taken as a scrum to force Connacht into a substitution, their number eight taking the bench. The scrum drew yet another penalty. How many before a yellow, ref? The red card does not reset the count.
The scrum was chosen again, was a poor choice this time; Ed Byrne adjudged to have pulled it down. Ah, scrums. Love them or hate them, the game wouldn’t be the same without them. Connacht escaped and with that, maybe, the chance for two more tries and the bonus point.
There were other chances for Leinster, who forced steals again and again, Fardy, van der Flier getting in on the act but no further score. One attack which saw a brilliant long pass from Kearney to O’Laughlin on the wing should have been scored but for a fantastic tackle by Caolin Blade, who dislodged the ball as he made the critical tackle.
The clock wound down as Connacht worked the ball to the halfway line, but the game was dead as a contest.
Not the most entertaining game; there were simply too many mistakes. But engaging nonetheless, especially for some of the cameos and head to head performances.
Toner and Dilane each carried well tackling each other on a few occasions. The younger Connacht man wants Toner’s Ireland jersey and, with his performance tonight, is certainly putting his arm up for selection. He is having a good run free from injury and should be seen in the other shade of green this November.
Josh van der Flier won the man of the match, amassing a huge tackle count, and playing seven. Sean O’Brien also held up well. Both players have had long absences and different roads back, but looked solid. Conan had a great game, carrying well and is developing a real leadership character.
The other Sean O’Brien, Connachts, had a strong game, carrying well and putting in great tackles. Copeland was prominent in the first half, making several steals at the ruck before Leinster closed him down.
The inter-provincial derbies are a special event in the calendar. This one lived up to its name. Never classic rugby, and always a dog-fight to the end. The red card overshadowed and spoilt the game. I’m sure it would have been closer without that foolish, unforgivable act.