Leinster 13 Connacht 0: Leinster may be alone among the provinces in having their European ambitions sundered before Christmas, but they have emerged from the festive season as undisputed top dogs on the island after last night’s gritty defeat of Connacht.
With Munster undone in Limerick the week before, and Ulster bettered in the RDS in late November, Leo Cullen’s side has found considerable succour in these derby days that have helped to elevate them into second spot in the Guinness PRO12.
This latest win was their sixth on the trot in the league.
Difficult though the first half of this rookie season was for Cullen the head coach, he always had far too much quality in his ranks not to witness some manner of bounce and they claimed four points here despite the absence of nine Ireland internationals and Isa Nacewa.
Such is their depth that they could still call on 15 players who have worn the green and Pat Lam, who has had to contend with a ridiculous injury list in recent weeks, was keen to mention that point on more than one occasion after the final whistle.
There were encouraging performances from a wide scattering of senior Leinster players here, but the day is coming around quickly again when Cullen & Co. will be leaning on their fresher faces so their earlier World Cup personnel crisis may actually stand to them come the Six Nations.
Garry Ringrose shone again last night in the centre and there were cameos from James Tracy, Peter Dooley and Ross Molony. Their Champions Cup dates with Bath and Wasps later this month will surely see the likes of those players add even further to their CVs.
“It’s unusual that we’ve already used 51 players by January 1st and the record is 52 over an entire season,” said Cullen. “So it’s early to use that many. They usually come in during the Six Nations, but we have had the long-term benefits of using these guys during the World Cup period.” With Connacht winning the toss and opting to play into the King Lear-like wind and rain, the onus fell on the hosts to engineer some distance on the scoreboard in the first period, but they ended it with just a Jonathan Sexton penalty to show for their efforts.
Connacht defended brilliantly in that period, even their regular concession of penalties and occasional difficulties at scrum and lineout failing to do for them as Leinster dominated possession and territory but failed to find the killer touch.
The home side’s failure to push home from four close-range mauls must have been especially frustrating and the visitors added to that with a penchant for making life difficult at the breakdown where they managed to snaffle the odd turnover.
It was a classic case of battening down the hatches for Lam’s men, though it could have been an even more profitable period had wing Niyi Adeolokun not been bundled into touch centimetres from the Leinster line on the stroke of half-time after snaffling up a neat grubber.
Cullen later admitted to some concerns at the interval, but Leinster went on to make moot their slender lead by incorporating a clever game plan, one which allied slightly more width and boot to ball than their opponents though they too stuck, for the most part, to the up-the-jumper stuff.
It was just that last method that delivered the game’s only try with an initial break from the left wing by Dave Kearney leading to a succession of close-in raids from inside the Connacht 22 by the forwards before Josh van der Flier went over.
It looked from the replays as if there was little in the way of conclusive evidence with which to award the try, but referee George Clancy, who fell to the turf at the crucial moment, asked his TMO only if there was any reason not to award the score. ‘Try yes or no,’ would have allowed the wonderfully named Marshall Kilgore to say nay, but Clancy’s enquiry framed the issue in such a way as to make it impossible for his colleague to come to Connacht’s rescue and the score stood.
It was a cruel turn of events for the defenders, all the more so given the resultant conversion was from a spot that was perfectly kickable despite the elements, and Sexton duly tapped over the extra two which were added to with five minutes to go by Ian Madigan’s penalty.
That’s two wins on the trot for Leinster. Three defeats on the spin for Connacht.
How quickly it all changes.
R Kearney; F McFadden, G Ringrose, B Te’o, D Kearney; J Sexton, E Reddan; J McGrath, R Strauss, M Moore; D Toner, M McCarthy; R Ruddock, J van der Flier, J Murphy.
S O’Brien for Murphy (52); J Tracy for Strauss (61); R Molony for McCarthy (68); P Dooley for McGrath and M Bent for Moore (both 71); I Madigan for Sexton (72); Z Kirchner for R Kearney and N McCarthy for Reddan (both 76).
T O’Halloran; N Adeolokun, B Aki, C Ronaldson, M Healy; J Carty, K Marmiom; F Bealham, T McCartney, N White; A Browne, A Muldowney; J Muldoon, J Heenan, E Masterson.
R Ah You for White (10-15 and 54); S O’Brien for Heenan (53); U Dillan for Muldowney (62); R Loughney for Bealham, I Porter for Marmion and AJ MacGinty for Carty (all 65); D Heffernan for McCartney (70); R Parata for O’Halloran (76).
G Clancy (IRFU).
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved