CONNACHT coach Eric Elwood was left to reflect on what might have been at the Sportsground on Saturday night after his side threw away what could ultimately prove a crucial Magners League point in the final minutes of their 18-6 defeat by Leinster.
Elwood knows that Connacht do not need to beat teams of Leinster’s calibre to reach their Holy Grail of the Heineken Cup through the league, but he is also aware that when you have a bonus point in the bag, you protect it jealously.
Instead, his team went in search of victory at 11-6 down with 81 minutes on the clock. No doubt imbued with the confidence of having seen hooker Sean Cronin make a magnificent but unavailing bid a few moments later, scrum-half Frank Murphy attempted to mount a counterattack 40 metres from his own line. However, Leinster substitute Dominic Ryan nipped in to intercept the pass and duly romped home unopposed for a converted try at the posts.
“I can’t fault the effort and the endeavour by the lads, and there were long periods when we didn’t have the ball and we defended valiantly,” said Elwood. “You’ve got to play the game in the right areas of the park and force them to make a decision. If they want the game to be over, let them kick it out or run back at you. Of course there are parts of you that want to win the game but when it’s close like that, you batten down the hatches and take the point.”
In truth, it wasn’t a game to warm the hearts of the 4,582 crowd. Leinster had lost their last two visits to Galway and this time fielded a strong side with Jonny Sexton and several other experienced campaigners manning vital positions.
They got off to the perfect start when scrum-half Isaac Boss burst through a yawning gap in Connacht’s number 10 channel, before delivering a great pass to Isa Nacewa who scored in the corner. The home side huffed and puffed but all they could manage before the end of a miserable opening half was a penalty by Ian Keatley.
The young fly-half was guilty of missing a virtual sitter however, and as the second half continued on in its predictable way, the only further scores were two penalties by Sexton and another by Keatley.
“I have a lot of sympathy for Connacht because I feel they deserved a bonus point,” Leinster coach Joe Schmidt admitted. “Still, I thought we deserved to win as we had the greater share of possession and territory.
“We made some good line breaks in the first half that we didn’t finish and the one we did finish was almost the difference in the end. This place has been a graveyard for us and Connacht are a difficult, scrambling team to play against. I really liked the way we kept our composure at the end of the game. We’ve won four in a row now and that’s largely down to having the experience back. Jonny (Sexton) controlled things and we lacked that in earlier rounds.” Elwood, meanwhile, acknowledged that he now has a formidable task on his hands in getting his troops prepared for another difficult assignment in Treviso next weekend. “The atmosphere in the dressing room is not good because the lads know they should have got something from the game. It was a derby game for us and we pride ourselves on our performances at home.
“These guys have come back from bigger disappointments and we just have to dust ourselves down.”
LEINSTER: R. Kearney; S. Horgan, E. O’Malley, F. McFadden, I. Nacewa; J. Sexton, I. Boss; C. Healy, R. Strauss, M. Ross, L. Cullen, D. Toner, S. O’Brien, S. Jennings, J. Heaslip (capt).
Replacements: G. D’Darcy for Kearney (ht); N. Hines for Cullen (58); E. Reddan for Boss 63; D. Ryan for Heaslip 69.
CONNACHT: G. Duffy; D. Fanning, N. Ta’Auso, K. Matthews, F. Carr; I. Keatley, F. Murphy; B. Wilkinson, S. Cronin, J. Hagan, M. Swift, M. McCarthy, J. O’Connor, R. Ofisa, J. Muldoon (capt).
Replacements: E. Taylor for O’Connor (temp); M. Nikora for Keatley (58); B. Fa’Auasli for Hagan (63); T. Nathan for Fanning (68); B. Upton for McCarthy (74).
Referee: George Clancy (Ireland).
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