Leinster 21 – Connacht 18
What a start to the new year! I almost had a heart attack on day one, the game was such a nail biter, the end in particular! I haven’t experienced a tighter finish for a home side this season so far, every single player from both sides gave it their all, but the huge credit goes to our young “C” team players who really stood up and put in an incredible shift against a full strength and full throttle Connacht side.
The game started with an easy 3 points for Connacht after 3 minutes. Leinster soon equalised via the boot of Sexton. Sexton kicked another 3 points to keep them a nose in front after the first quarter. Leinster almost scored through Rob Kearney and then Luke McGrath but Connacht’s scramble defence managed to keep them out. However, following relentless pressure, Leinster finally got rewarded with a lovely try in the corner from Max Deegan, converted by Sexton to make it 11-3 after 28 minutes.
Although it was Leinster that appeared to be the stronger and more organised of the two teams in the first half, Connacht went in ahead on the scoreboard at half time following a Carty penalty and a try from Finlay Bealham on the 40 minute mark.
The second half started shakily for Leinster but Sexton managed to kick a tough penalty on 49 mins to take Leinster back into the lead, 14-13. It wasn’t until 21 minutes later that the next score would arrive and it was Luke McGrath who dived over for his try, converted by Sexton, 21-13 after 61 minutes. However it was Matt Healy that would score the final try on the match on 70 minutes to bring the score back to 22-18, but Carty missed the conversion. Connacht set up camp in Leinster’s 22 for the final few minutes of the match. Needless to say, my nails were half gone at this stage and I could feel my heart pounding as Connacht put in 28 phases of play as they pounded on the Leinster defensive wall in the hope of snatching a historic victory at the RDS. However, as much as it was an incredible effort from the attacking visitors, it was a thing of beauty to watch Leinster hold them out whilst keeping their discipline. Eventually, the ball was turned over and the ball was kicked high into touch! Game over, job done!
It was far from a top drawer performance from Leinster. They looked very strong in attack but turned frantic and seemed almost panicked whenever they entered Connacht’s 22. This resulted in Leinster making some uncharacteristic errors and not being able to finish off multiple well worked try scoring opportunities. It was reminiscent of performances from the tail end of last season which ultimately saw Leinster’s form dip considerably at the business end of both competitions. I hope this was just a blip in attacking form and Cullen and Co will get the team mindset back on track for next weekend. Defensively, Leinster were impeccable when it mattered most. The boys in blue weren’t just able to hold Connacht out and deny them scoring on a few occasions, but they also pushed Connacht many metres back from our try line before turning the ball over. Of course, Connacht eventually scored two fine tries but they were made work considerably hard for both.
Standout players for Leinster included captain Sexton who steered the team up the field very well and put in some excellent defensive efforts. Another top performer was James Lowe who provided further evidence of his immense skills throughout. From beating defenders, putting in high volumes of tackles, to bringing a clear vocal leadership to the side, then setting up a try, he was a workhorse again for Leinster. From early evidence, he is our best overseas signing since Isa Nacewa in my opinion. He’s now a crucial cog in the Leinster wheel and should be a nailed on starter each week! Sean Cronin has always been a great servant to Leinster and his performance in blue today was rewarded with a man of the match award. I don’t see what more he can do to impress Joe Schmidt and be included in the upcoming 6 Nations squad, although a part of me would like him to stick around the Leinster setup during that international period!
Leo Cullen wasn’t too impressed with his teams’ performance and was disappointed that Leinster didn’t kick on when 8 points ahead to increase the gap to 15 and beyond. I like when Cullen speaks like this after winning as it shows intent that the team needs to get better and better. This mindset should keep the squad fresh and determined to improve with each game regardless of how successful they are on the scoreboard each week. Excellence is what’s needed in order to lift silverware next May, and after the last two seasons have shown with regard to Leinster, there is a long way to go yet and failure is not an option this year! Leinster peaked around March last season and I think that’s where the development ended, the team seemed unable to pull anything new or improved out of the bag and crucial opponents started to capitalise on that. This season, Cullen knows that development and that strive for excellence never stops, there should be a consistent hunger to improve, and that should build in intensity!
Next up, Ulster at the RDS. This will be Leinster’s third derby in 11 days and should prove to be another huge challenge for the boys in blue, and of course our visitors!!