One of only three teams unbeaten in the Guinness Pro 12 and facing the back-to-back champions, Leinster, Pat Lam’s side recorded their third win on the trot to continue a dream run.
The home fans numbering close to 6,000 chanted as never heard before — “we are, we are, we are top of the league”.
Leinster packed the first-half punch to lead 9-3, but it was Connacht who staged a remarkable second-half recovery, kept Leinster scoreless, and produced the knockout blow.
Lam’s insistence of a new culture emerging in the west took hold, and they picked the perfect opposition to make a statement.
Leinster dominated the battle up front, and certainly looked to have the cutting edge out wide in the first half, but the difference was Connacht’s huge defensive effort and the greater will to win. Leinster will be disappointed as they controlled possession, but they found it difficult to break their opponent’s solid defensive line — albeit with two tries denied by TMO.
Leinster dominated the opening half and could have been out of sight, given the amount of possession they won. Helped by a one-sided penalty count — five in the opening 15 minutes — Matt O’Connor’s side bossed and bullied most of the exchanges, claimed the territorial stakes, and looked far more confident with ball in hand.
Drawing first blood, Ian Madigan posted a second-minute penalty after Darragh Leader knocked on, and the second mistake from Connacht’s young pretenders saw out-half Jack Carty kick a penalty wide two minutes later.
Certainly the home side was let off the hook when Madigan’s second penalty sailed wide after Leinster’s scrum once again prevailed. Madigan was on target two minutes later, and as Connacht became increasingly stymied, Leinster capitalised, with Madigan stretching the lead to 9-0 in the 16th minute.
It took 20 minutes before Connacht found any rhythm, but with their first attacking phase play, they were rewarded with a penalty which Carty stroked over to narrow the deficit to 9-3.
The frustrations continued for the home side and it would have been goodnight for Connacht had Madigan, the fulcrum of Leinster’s attacking play, not been denied an opening try. With Connacht a man down and captain John Muldoon in the sin-bin, Connacht looked in trouble.
From a scrum, Reddan looked to have put Madigan through the 10-12 channel, but the pass was deemed forward by TMO. It was a huge let-off for the home side.
Robbie Henshaw came closest to making a breakthrough from a well-judged intercept but it was Leinster who finished the half ploughing through the phases and coming agonisingly close again, on this occasion held up on the line by a huge defensive effort.
Hand it to Connacht. Not for the first time this season they closed out a tight game. Without a sniff of the try line for most of the match, they opted to kick a penalty from inside their own half, but Darragh Leader’s effort was well wide. However it signalled a new approach as Connacht started to take the game to their opponents, passes started to stick; the pack, led by Muldoon, Denis Buckley, and Nathan White, threw themselves into every tackle, and replacement George Naoupu started to make hard yards.
The try, when it came, was worthy of the evening — a sweeping move across the pitch before a piece of Marmion magic — picking up from the breakdown just inside half way, cutting through the defence and outpacing Leinster’s back three. Carty’s conversion put Connacht into the lead for the first time in the game after 55 minutes.
Suddenly the complexion of the game changed, the Clan Terrace rose, and when Dave McSharry cut down Rob Kearney at the knees to win a penalty, Leinster knew now they were in a game. The visitors had only one more crack to claim the winner, but Kearney’s kick ahead went out and with it their chances of claiming their second victory.
Connacht scorers: Tries: Marmion. Cons: Carty. Pens: Carty.
CONNACHT: D. Leader, Adeolokun, Henshaw, McSharry, Healy, Carty, Marmion, Buckley, Heffernan, White, Muldowney, Roux, Muldoon, Faloon, McKeon.
Replacements: Ronaldson for D. Leader (69), Carr for Adeolokun (41), Porter for Marmion (69), Loughney for Buckley (80), Ah You for White (66), Kearney for Roux (50), Naoupu for Faloon (33).
Leinster scorers: Pens: Madigan 3.
LEINSTER: R. Kearney, McFadden, Macken, Madigan, Fanning, Gopperth, Boss, J. McGrath, Cronin, Ross, Toner, M. McCarthy, Ruddock, Ryan, J. Heaslip.
Replacements: D’Arcy for Macken (58), Healy for J. McGrath (46), Furlong for Ross (66), Jennings for Ruddock (61), M. McGrath for Jennings (72).
Ref: John Lacey (Ireland).