Thrilling win over Connacht sets Leinster up nicely for trip to Thomond
By Daire Walsh
AS they approach the end of a memorable 2018, Leinster have firmly established themselves as the pace-setters in Conference B of the Guinness PRO14. While they face a daunting trip to Thomond Park this evening (29 December, 5.15pm) to face arch rivals Munster, it will make little difference to their overall standing in the competition.
Courtesy of their heart-stopping triumph over Connacht in the RDS last Saturday (December 22), Leo Cullen’s charges opened up an astonishing 16-point cushion at the summit of the table. With just one defeat in 11 encounters to date, the defending champions are once again the form team in their domestic league.
Glasgow Warriors are also justifiable leaders in Conference A, though three defeats means the gap between them and second-place Munster is just six points ahead of this weekend’s fare.
Whereas there has traditionally been a full programme of St Stephen’s Day action on these shores, a decision was made to stretch it right across the Christmas period. Because he had one eye on the forthcoming journey to Limerick, Cullen selected a fringe line-up for the visit of Connacht to Ballsbridge – their final home game of the calendar year.
Seasoned international campaigners like Rhys Ruddock (captain on the night), Dave Kearney, Dan Leavy and Scott Fardy were joined in the starting fifteen by recent Ireland debutant Ross Byrne. Rory O’Loughlin, Michael Bent and replacement Noel Reid have also lined out for the Green Army in the past, and current stars Sean Cronin and Andrew Porter were suitable bench alternatives to Bryan Byrne and the aforementioned Bent.
Kill’s Adam Byrne was also selected on the right-wing for his seventh start of the season – featuring alongside Kearney and former Ireland 7s starlet Hugo Keenan in the back-three. Connacht lost Tiernan O’Halloran to injury in the warm-up, but with Bundee Aki stepping into the breach, it didn’t curb the enthusiasm of the westerners.
Despite Jamison Gibson-Park setting up Westmeath man Conor O’Brien for an 11th-minute try, Leinster trailed 19-7 at the break. In addition to Jack Carty’s outstanding seven-point salvo, former Blues winger Cian Kelleher and Darragh Leader also crossed over for Andy Friend’s side.
Leinster aimed to restore order on the resumption with a five-pointer from lock Mick Kearney – who was previously a part of the furniture under Pat Lam at the Sportsground in Galway. Connacht were relentless in their pursuit of scores, however, and the outstanding Carty released half-back Caolin Blade for their fourth try.
Indeed, when the Roscommon fly-half increased their lead to 29-12 on 63 minutes, they looked set for a comfortable bonus-point success. Tries by Sean Cronin (continuing the trend of players scoring against their old teams) and Dan Leavy set up a nerve-wracking finale to an absorbing winter contest, however, where Connacht found themselves permanently on the back-foot.
Kyle Godwin’s loose pass presented Leinster with a final chance and Porter duly obliged by crossing the whitewash at the end of a multi-phase attack in stoppage-time.