It takes a lot to keep me from watching Leinster & Ireland rugby matches as they happen - the last time I had to actually be taken to hospital to miss Ireland v Samoa at RWC2019 (nothing too serious thankfully).
This weekend there were two family occasions overlapping on Saturday and although I could have organized things to be in front of a telly for kickoff time, possibly due to RCI (Rainbow Cup Indifference) I just let the day play out which meant I wasn’t able to switch on until closer to 8pm.
Over the years I have been able to develop quite a knack for condensed rugby watching, and I’m sure I’m not the only one who does this. By fast forwarding at strategic times I can watch a complete match in just over an hour, so despite having fallen behind for this one I was able to bring myself back up to speed in time for the start of the second half.
Yet as my watching of the first forty minutes was speeded up, so too was the rollercoaster of my emotions. I mean, in my preview I was confident we could get the win but the prospect of a third defeat in as many weeks with all the media narratives which would inevitably follow was never far from my thoughts, and when Connacht got a 16-point head start it looked to be an absolute certainty.
And while I might not go so far as to say we “handed them” that early advantage, the penalty Frawley shipped which led to the opening score definitely was a silly one; it was like he reached out and grabbed Caolin Blade in slow motion. Then it was Scott Penny done for not rolling away and you’d be forgiven for thinking nothing was done to fix our breakdown woes from the previous week.
Then came the Blade try. Their line speed was really putting the pressure on as we tried to kick start our offence and when a loose pass from McGrath went straight to his opposite number he had an easy run in to the line. From here we had our first go at a “captain’s challenge” and it was pretty early in the match to risk it. Apparently Luke’s theory was that Finlay Bealham was offside at the breakdown yet despite having seen the replay several times, I’m still not convinced he didn’t knock on in the tackle.
But the try stood and Blade was also involved in the next score as it was Peter Dooley with the high tackle on him allowing Ciaran Fitzgerald to kick another three points stretching the lead to that coveted 3-score margin. At this stage I was sorely tempted to abandon my fast forwarding and just take things up at the start of the second half - luckily I thought better of it.
All I really wanted was some kind of reaction and thankfully we got it right from the kickoff after going 16 points down. Garry Ringrose made the tackle from the restart, Josh Murphy and Scott Penny put on a really good chase and their counter ruck gave us possession - it was critical we did something quickly while the home side was transitioning and when Ross Byrne gave it to Frawley the inside centre delayed his pass perfectly to slip his full back Hugo Keenan and just like that we were on the board.
Obviously that wasn’t anywhere near enough and after a good exit kick from Luke McGrath following the next restart, although we knocked on trying to pinch their lineout, a senseless lash out from young lock Niall Murray caused a bout of handbags but more importantly it turned a Connacht scrum at halfway into a Leinster penalty leading to an attacking lineout at their 22.
This is where the shift of power in the match really became clear. Our lineouts have literally been “hit and miss” this season but once they hit consistently, we have been able to do a lot with them and this match was no exception. Ross Molony rose to take the dart, the maul set and proceeded to barge into the Connacht 22 earning a penalty advantage for good measure.
We wanted to make the most of the front foot ball and proceeded to stretch their defence by sending out from one touchline to the other through the backs before Keenan got over for his second, which incidentally meant he had more tries in these five or so minutes than he had in total for his province before.
Ross Byrne was able to tame the Galway gusts from the touchline to put us with two points of our hosts, and when it was Denis Buckley’s turn shortly afterwards to provide a midfield no-no, we had ourselves an even more effective maul which rumbled all the way to the line for James Tracy to get it down and just like that we were in front.
In my fast forwarding haste I nearly missed the departure of Jack Conan from the pitch at 24 minutes and hopefully the fact he left under his own steam is a sign that he was only removed as a precaution after the excellent news he received during the week. But with his replacement being Josh van der Flier, there was no way the Leinster train was going to be slowing down.
By this stage Connacht’s attempts to regain the lead were going one step forward before falling two back. A good steal from Butler at midfield resulted in Blade popping a territory kick out on the full. Shortly after the resulting lineout, Conor Oliver all but replicated Frawley’s early senseless effort interfering with the 9 and suddenly we were back in their 22.
Everyone watching knew we were going to go for the maul again, only when you enjoy that kind of dominance it’s important to vary your approach which is exactly what Tracy did as he peeled off the maul to get us close to the line. A few phases later, Frank Murphy judged that Molony had gotten the ball down and although there was another confident captain’s challenge, he stuck to his decision and now we had the bonus point in the bag.
Already I was itching to engage with my fellow Leinster fans on Twitter but the way this half had turned on its head I wanted to be sure there wasn’t another score to come and again I almost missed the withdrawal of a player and this time it was the incredibly unlucky Ciaran Frawley forced off after bouncing off Niall Murray in a tackle. If anyone badly needs a run of games in blue it’s him and I hope he’s not out for too long.
Next another Connacht attack was thwarted, this time via a perfect poach from JVDF at midfield which led to Ross Byrne spotting some space on the opposite wing which meant, of course given who the out half was, a pinpoint kick pass was to follow.
It fell into the arms of Rory O’Loughlin who knew exactly what to do as he shipped it to Cian Kelleher. The nearest man to the former Connacht winger was prop Denis Buckley so there was only ever going to be one outcome to the footrace, namely try number 5. And when Ross Byrne proved his mastery of the wind yet again to add the extras, we had more than doubled that early home lead by the break.
Just home having been out for the day have I missed much??? #CONvLEI— Harpin' On Rugby (@HarpinOnRugby) May 8, 2021
The second half began with a lot of tentative kick tennis from both sides but ours was definitely better and when a Ross Byrne grubber into the corner led to another attacking lineout at the 22 we were able to pick up where we left off.
Our first maul rumbled its way deep into the 22 only to be collapsed by Dave Heffernan so when the phases got nowhere, we set up another lineout, this time at the 5. Again the Connacht hooker was judged to have brought down the maul only this time Andrew Porter managed to get it over. Am I being greedy suggesting Heffernan should have been carded despite the score? Possibly. Still, the lead was now 40-16.
We hadn’t been the only side to lose key personnel in the first half - Connacht skipper Jarrad Butler also had to leave early to be replaced by the big carrying rugby league convert Abraham Papali’i and for the rest of the match the home side pretty much put all their egg-chasing into his basket.
To be fair, he did have his moments, although with Leinster's defensive line also now “in the zone” his effectiveness was never going to reach Will Skelton proportions. When Heffernan’s attempt to get over the line was judged to have been held up, the big New Zealand-born back rower would normally have been used to get over from the 5m scrum, yet with the Rainbow Cup rules, we were able to clear from under the posts.
From there Connacht tried to turn our defence by kicking behind us but we were able to clear again and when Scott Penny jackled another penalty at halfway, there we were with a lineout in their 22 again, and as if our forwards were working to a roster in the try scoring department, it was Scott Fardy who managed to get it down this time bringing our side of the scoreboard to 45.
By this stage Ross Byrne had been forced to leave the field so with Frawley also out of the picture, the playmaking duties now fell to Garry Ringrose. His conversions may not have paid off but he definitely did seem to enjoy overall the opportunity to show why he was at very least in the Lions reckoning, especially on the defensive side of things.
You might call the next twenty or so minutes something of a purple patch for Connacht, albeit a much lighter shade than the one in the first half which seemed a lifetime ago at this stage. We thought we had snatched an eighth try when McGrath and Kearney combined well for the winger to dot down only the replays to show that centre Sean O’Brien and brilliantly managed to wrest the ball free at the last gasp.
Then the Papali’i pressure finally started to get them some reward and with a lineout and maul of their own in our 22, they earned another advantage only to fling it wide quickly where winger Peter Sullivan had lots of work to do in getting it to the line yet managed it very well providing some consolation.
It wasn’t to be the final score however as a stolen lineout from Ryan Baird gave us another chance around the 22 - Rowan Osborne was now on for McGrath and he shipped it to Josh van der Flier. To be honest I was surprised to hear reports that he had been told to work on his running game, but if he was, he definitely took heed as his run from here barged past several would be tacklers (including Papali’i) putting us on the front foot again.
From there it was neat passing, offloading and clearing out from the boys in blue until it was that man Hugo Keenan, another to be overlooked during the week, falling over the line to secure both his hat-trick and underline his Player of the Match award which had already been announced.
So from a time when my Rainbow Cup Indifference had reached its peak about fifteen minutes in, the Leinster fightback served as the perfect vaccine which now has me convinced that we can get ourselves back up that table and, obviously depending on results elsewhere, yet another crack at the men from Munster. Hopefully we can continue that kind of form when the Ulstermen come to visit on Friday.
During the week we will of course be looking anxiously at the injury report hoping for good news on the condition of Messrs Conan, Frawley and Byrne as well as the others waiting to return. For my part I hope to be talking to the host of an online show on South African rugby about the Lions, the Rainbow Cup and Pro 16; keep an eye out for that podcast which should post on Wednesday. JLP
UPDATE - Injury report came through after the article was competed, no mention of Ross Byrne which is probably good news and it looks like Conan is going through the HIA protocols. Not so good for Frawley however, he seems to have done his shoulder.