Hopefully you’ll forgive me if I start this writeup on a tangent - I often do that to help me get the article started when my favoured team hasn’t performed well.
I’d like to take this opportunity to bring up something I’ve been harping on for a while - the need for a change to the bonus point rule in rugby, or more accurately one which brings the rule used in all senior competitions into alignment. The way things stand in the Pro14, Premiership, Europe and Six Nations is that you get a bonus point if you score 4 tries no matter what the other team does in reply.
What I’m campaigning for is a switch to the method first seen in the Top 14 and then adopted by Super Rugby whereby you actually have to score 3 tries more than your opponents to earn the point. I like this because it means it’s more difficult to consider it to be “wrapped up” since it can actually be taken away from you if you don’t mind your defence, and I also wasn’t wild about a losing side collecting two points under any circumstances.
Yes, I know that means Leinster wouldn’t have had anything to push for in the closing stages of this particular match, but as far as I’m concerned it wouldn’t matter. The way things went, we didn’t deserve any points. And by the same token, since Connacht conceded four tries themselves, it could be argued they didn’t deserve a bonus point either.
OK that last sentence could very well get me into trouble so it’s about time I turned my attention to the action. Of course it was a magnificent display by the Westies and the historic victory was thoroughly deserved. And while it was a consummate team performance that included many heroes, few could argue that it was the attitude and guile of outhalf Jack Carty that led the way for them throughout, especially as he contributed 25 of his side’s 35 points including the first two tries. For me, his second summed up the way the whole match went for Connacht.
The first was a perfect read of a situation where Ross Molony had assumed the scrum half role at an early breakdown and his slight hesitation would normally have gone unpunished but Carty was definitely in punishing mood and nabbed it to run in from his own half.
As the clock ticked into the second quarter, the Connacht and Ireland 10 had just placed a beauty of a touchfinder to 5m from the Leinster line only for Devin Toner to pinch the dart allowing us to clear to halfway.
From the lineout the visitors executed a perfect crash ball move to get on the front foot in our half and when Shane Delahunt spotted a lack of pillar protection at a breakdown, although his entry point could be best described as “gate-adjacent”, he still took full advantage and with both Blade and Carty in excellent support, a couple of neat offloads later they were camped on our line.
Everyone who has played Leinster in recent times knows the importance of striking while the iron is hot so they needed to act fast if they were to turn this chance into points so a couple of phases later, it was Carty again steaming in on a line that was so accurate he almost didn’t need the help of his latching skipper Quinn Roux to get it over.
Others to impress on the night for Connacht were Caolin Blade, Conor Oliver, locks Roux and Thornbury, John Porch plus their 12/13 combo of Tom Daly and Sammy Arnold. Centre was a position I cited in my preview as being critical and it certainly was - Daly in particular was pushing Carty for Player of the match long before he pilfered the bonus point try.
It was their third try which told the full story of how Leinster’s night was going. Having already shuffled our matchday 23 several times before kickoff, a collision between Denis Buckley and Johnny Sexton eventually put our club captain off the field for good - whatever way the HIA went there really wasn’t any sense in risking him further.
This meant that with Ciarán Frawley & The Byrne Brothers (is it just me or does that sound like a trad band) unavailable, it was up to Jimmy O’Brien to slot into the playmaker role. He has shown a decent creative touch all season from full back but this was a whole new challenge, especially with an opposition as fired up as Andy Friend’s men were.
As a result we caught a break shortly after the second try when it was their turn to leave a breakdown “un-pillared” allowing Luke McGrath to slip Scott Penny through for an easy five points (which probably should have been an easy seven only our only recognised placekicker was already off the pitch).
But other than that he and his fellow Leinster backs struggled to find their touch with multiple crossfield kicks failing to meet the accuracy to which our wingers have become accustomed. And it wasn’t only in this area where we were lacking.
I have to word this paragraph carefully. Our younger performers on the night, like Max O’Reilly and Andrew Smith making their debuts as starters with those with a few caps each like Liam Turner and David Hawkshaw coming off the bench earlier than expected, all made decent individual contributions, and they very nearly combined for a wonder try only for a bit of crossing caught by the TMO (absolutely the right call btw).
The only problem was that part of the secret to Leinster’s “beating anyone not called Sarries” success in recent years has been built on feeding this kind of youth gradually into the team enabling them to hit the ground running. For this occasion, we needed our overall systems to be working perfectly and they clearly weren’t.
And I mentioned only backs there but there were issues in the forwards as well. Several lineouts were lost, and other times even when we got some great output from someone like Ryan Baird rampaging his way deep into the Connacht 22 with good support provided by James Tracy, there wasn’t enough to protect the follow up carrier and a penalty would result.
From that position they put it deep into our half, finding the RDS turf enough to make Smith turn and go back to retrieve it. He was met by a host of Connacht chasers in his own 22 and when Scott Penny takes it for one more phase to help tidy, he actually brings it out of the 22 which means we have no path straight to touch.
That shouldn’t have really mattered because Leinster have been really good of late at running our way out of deep situations yet this time, Tom Daly was the one to smell blood in the water and his tackle forced a knockon giving his side a 5m scrum completing their journey from the other end of the pitch.
Now Leinster were facing a scenario we have often inflicted on others, namely conceding a score just before the break. And Connacht made no mistake from the set piece as first Blade brought it to the line before it was sent out wide to avail of an overlap allowing Alex Wooton to cross in the corner. Carty had missed a couple of “easy for him” placekicks in the half already yet he still managed to underline an amazing half of rugby for his team by nailing the touchline conversion.
So there we had it, a halftime scoreline that would have raised eyebrows all over the rugby world. Still, those same observers would have all known that if any team could come back, it was a Leinster team having spent 15 minutes in a dressing room with Cullen, Lancaster & co. And to be fair, we did show a lot more fight in the second half.
You could clearly see it in our play with the ball. Every carry needed to find yards. Every pass had to stick. Every sliver of space had to be exploited. It led to tries from Luke McGrath, Ryan Baird and right at the end, Ed Byrne. As much as I want to start a debate on the bonus point, that didn’t change the fact that one was on offer and we certainly fought for it, and who knows, had that crossing call gone differently, we may have gotten more.
But Carty’s role changed after the break. Now his side needed a masterclass in guiding a lead home. Two different styles of kick in particular of his in the second half showed he was well able to deliver it. First he put a high ball with perfect hang time into our 22 where it was met by David Hawkshaw who got smashed and knocked it on.
Connacht got no points from this visit to our end of the pitch, but since we had narrowed the margin to 9 at this point, the time elapsed was just as valuable. Then after we eventually turned the ball over and cleared, he chose another option with the boot, this time drilling one low and hard to find touch back in our 22. Superb. His boot also provided a more traditional yet no less important three points from a penalty
Then to provide the cherry on the icing on the cake, Tom Daly was rewarded for his night of stalking our passing lanes by grabbing one for himself and however much the scrambling Leinster would-be tacklers tried to haul him down he just wasn’t for stopping. And that was that.
So for Connacht the result not only gets a monkey off their backs but it also puts them in a decent position in Conference B, even with the tweaked format allowing only the winner to emerge. They host Munster at the weekend knowing victory will bring them to within striking distance.
But back on our side of the league, the result leaves things even more delicately poised. Maybe it’s a bit embarrassing that all four provinces are in the leading contention for the final spots right now (Scarlets not all that far behind tbf) but the fact remains that we are 10 points behind Ulster with that exact amount of points on offer from the matches we have in hand. Oh and did I mention that we also welcome them to the RDS this coming Friday?
After so many wins on the bounce in this competition, I could hardly consider this result to be too much of a problem. That said, no matter what matchday squad we are able to name going into this weekend, it will be imperative that we find our mojo right from the kickoff otherwise it could be another long night at Ballsbridge and one of those in 2021 is already too much for me!
Congrats once more to Andy, Quinn, Jack and everyone involved in Connacht Rugby. With all that has been going on it really is good to see all four Irish provinces up there competing at the highest level and it gives us great hope for the year to come. JLP