Sixteen seasons and counting now since Connacht have claimed a win in Dublin — and they have never tasted success at the RDS — but they came as close as humanly possible to ending that drought last night without actually getting their lips to water.
Trailing by three points as the clock dipped into the red, the visitors ploughed through 28 phases and dragged the game almost six minutes past the regulation 80 before Scott Fardy smashed Conor Carey and Max Deegan clamped his paws on the pill.
Deegan’s attempted poach bought a penalty for the home team thanks to Carey’s reluctance to concede possession but TV images suggested the Leinster No.8 had a knee on the floor as he made his move. A tough one to take for the westerners.
Leo Cullen admitted Leinster had probably “gotten away” with the win and Kieran Keane agreed it was likely a famous victory let slip, but this was a superb interpro that was decided by the slimmest of margins in front of a near-full RDS.
A strong wind shot diagonally across the field from the Simmonscourt end and, though Leinster had that at their backs after the break, the home side conceded a huge amount of possession to an in-form Connacht side that proved to be a dogged and capable opponent.
It’s only 18 months since Connacht got the better of them in the PRO12 decider in Edinburgh with such an aesthetically pleasing and effective all-court style, but it was the home team playing any of the champagne rugby here with line breaks aplenty causing trouble.
Time and again the three-time European champions blew a massive hole in the Connacht defensive line, with James Lowe especially adept at finding the gaps or, at other times, simply bulldozing his way through anyone standing in his way.
Between his offloads and hand-offs he was exceptional.
Cullen’s side failed to capitalise on too many of those penetrative raids and it meant they were shadowed by Connacht all the way through the game even though their lead was eight points with ten minutes to go.
Cullen’s demeanour was markedly dour afterwards but this was a significant win for a Leinster side that showed 13 changes to the XV that had accounted for Munster so impressively in Thomond Park back on St Stephen’s Day.
It used to be that all the provinces rested players in the same way over the festive period: Go with close to your strongest set for the home interpro and mix it up on the road. Leinster have done it differently, opting again to flood the team with younger faces here.
Maybe only they could do that and go out and pull off the win, but then there is a method to such madness when the new boys are as talented as Andrew Porter, Dan Leavy, and Deegan.
Leavy was again magnificent over the ball before leaving with a lower back injury though Josh van der Flier’s tackle count — 31 made and none missed, apparently, was truly extraordinary.
Leinster played smart rugby against the wind, passing their way out of their own 22 rather than kicking it and navigating their way through the majority of that first period with a lead before being overtaken seconds before the break.
Leading 6-3 thanks to two Jonathan Sexton penalties to one from Jack Carty with almost half an hour played, they struck the first major blow thanks to Deegan, who finished off a sublime move that owed its origins to a Lowe offload that allowed Noel Reid to break cover.
Connacht had punched deep into blue territory only once until then when a rolling maul from a close-in lineout was halted by a Porter tackle in the corner and a Leavy steal that is rapidly becoming a personal trademark.
Their first five-pointer was well executed, John Muldoon stealing a Leinster lineout and Bundee Aki making the break and delivering the pass that added to the damage before Finlay Bealham burrowed over near the posts a few phases later.
A 13-11 interval lead wasn’t much given the conditions and Leinster dominated the third quarter with a Luke McGrath try arising out of another fluid move, this one orchestrated by Sean Cronin, Sexton, and Fergus McFadden.
Sexton’s conversion, added to a 50th-minute penalty, left Leinster eight to the good but Connacht never looked like bowing meekly to history or the scoreboard and they were full value for the game’s fourth try ten minutes from time.
Leinster’s defence has been superb at times this last month and they soaked up another succession of pick and goes before Connacht spread it wide left to Matt Healy who danced brilliantly past three tackles to touch down and set the scene for an epic ending.
R Kearney; F McFadden, G Ringrose, N Reid, J Lowe; J Sexton, L McGrath; P Dooley, S Cronin, A Porter; R Molony, I Nagle; D Leavy, J van der Flier, M Deegan.
S Fardy for Leavy (40); E Byrne for Dooley and M Bent for Porter (both 51); R O’Loughlin for Reid (62); B Byrne for Cronin and M Kearney for Nagle (both 65); N McCarthy for McGrath (HIA, 73).
T O’Halloran; C Kelleher, B Aki, T Farrell, M Healy; J Carty, K Marmion; D Coulson, T McCartney, F Bealham; U Dillane, J Cannon; E Masterson, J Butler, J Muldoon.
N Adeolokun for Kelleher (HIA, 27); S Delahunt for McCartney and C Carey for Bealham (both 62); N Dawai for Muldoon (71).
B Whitehouse (WRU).
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