I've never been one to apologize for a pun headline on these pages, but I may at least owe an explanation for this.
David Hawkshaw's 10 caps haven't given me too many opportunities to make the obvious bird reference so this match, given it's against the province he's off to AND he had arguably his best shift so far, kind of left me with no choice.
Make no mistake, this was a very, very handy five points for Leinster. With Ulster losing in Cape Town earlier that day and our own run in looking tricky to say the very least, we'd have been grateful to come away from the Sportsground with anything and indeed I backed the home side to win in my preview.
Yet while a maximum haul looked very likely after about 3 minutes, it certainly didn't after 40 (or even after 1 for that matter!) so let's start harping on how events unfolded shall we.
Ross Byrne got the match underway with a drop kick from the centre of the pitch which meant the ball had merely grazed the Galway grass before referee Chris Busby had his first incident to look at.
One thing that bugs me in all the debates around the "zero tolerance" guidelines is how often experienced pundits who should know better talk about the lack of "intent" in a players' actions, because that is not what these interpretations are all about. They are meant to alter behaviour and hopefully prevent unnecessary risky actions being performed.
However to properly distinguish between the two early cards in this match, we do have to look at intent just a little bit. When Tommy O'Brien swung his arm it was not at all to strike Connacht lock Niall Murray - obviously he wanted to bat the ball back for his side. Yet he missed, got the player not only in the air but also the motion took his arm into the neck area bringing him to the ground with force.
If Murray had landed on his head or neck, the card would have to be red. But he didn't, which makes it a yellow. Absolutely nothing wrong with the decision IMO, and the worst possible start for Leinster, although Jack Carty's kick with the penalty failed to find touch.
So Leinster cleared and after a brief kicking exchange we proceeded to put together a couple of passing sequences at midfield. One matchup that promised to be significant in this match was in the two pairs of centres. Leinster had the Frawley/Osborne axis, one we seem to have chosen going into this "during internationals" series, against the two Toms Daly and Farrell, both of whom have excelled against us in the past.
And with the match yet to tick past the second minute, Daly went to challenge his opposite number and much like Ewels on Ryan a few weeks ago, failed to get low which meant that when he hit Frawley, there was clear and forceful contact with the head. When it comes to intent on this challenge, obviously nobody is suggesting he wanted to injure the Leinster player, but he was attempting a tackle so this was always going to struggle to find mitigation down from a red card.
Full credit to the Connacht fans both in the ground and on Twitter - I didn't hear much that sounded like complaints about the decision; despite all the disappointment there might have been in a big match like this, especially considering that the two sides still have to face each other twice more in the coming weeks
All of which left us with a 14 v 14 contest until the 10 minute mark when we'd have an advantage for the remainer of the match, assuming of course we didn't give the ref the opportunity to level things up again.
Our first goal was to see out the yellow which we managed well courtesy of some patient kick tennis that ended up with a Connacht throw to a lineout deep in their own 22. And when Dave Heffernan's dart was deemed crooked, and the subsequent scrum was reset, it meant TOB's time had elapsed and we suddenly had a gilt-edged chance to attack.
A penalty from the scrum might have had us going for another but we put it to touch and when Ross Molony took the catch it set us up for a series of picks and go on the Connacht line where again we were patient until we drew in enough goal line defenders for Luke McGrath to spot Rory O'Loughlin in space out wide, getting it to him via Ross Byrne for the opening try.
We looked really comfortable at this stage (around 16 minutes) but when Connacht had their own first spells of possession at midfield they made it clear they were going to do all they could to test our defence and having pinched a lineout of ours at halfway, they won a penalty that was clearly in Carty's range.
He made the kick look easy and his pack stole another of our lineouts shortly after the restart - this was where their confidence started to grow. Carty as skipper would have seen what England were able to do shorthanded and no doubt used the experience to rally the troops and whatever the numbers on the pitch we were really under the kosh all the way to half time.
The early patience we had shown had evaporated and we started to force passes that really weren't on with the home side poised to strike, although it was something of a blow for them to see veteran prop Denis Buckley have to go off injured at the half hour mark.
Yet we were to have more serious personnel issues of our own...Ciaran Frawley has had more than his share of head knocks in his short career and was lucky to be able to continue after the Daly challenge but when he collided with his own team-mate Ross Byrne, it looked like both their days were done.
And this had been a worry for Leinster's chances going into the match as we were light on experience in the backs on our bench by our standards so to lose Frawley for Cosgrove making his senior debut was a blow for sure whatever the numbers.
It was a strong Connacht scrum at midfield that offered them a kickable chance for another three but there was no hesitation in going for the corner and although a series of phases on the line didn't get them over, there was a penalty advantage for which they took another scrum.
As the packs were coming together it was clear Ross Byrne needed attention which meant we had to go further into our bench as Hawkshaw came on for a really important defensive set with a backline we wouldn't have wanted to see until the same stage of the second half.
No penalty at this scrum although there was another advantage from the phases which followed...I wonder if they had kept things going we might have tempted a card from the pocket but a player like Carty is always going to be direct and when he spotted O'Halloran in space out wide a brilliant fizzed arcing long pass found the full back and the home side had themselves an amazing lead going into the break.
Quite the first half, after the crazy start (both calls spot on IMO) it's Connacht playing like they have the extra man and with Leinster already 2 out of 3 from bench, we'll have a lot to do after the break. Need to play simple watch discipline and chances will come #CONvLEI— Harpin' On Rugby (@HarpinOnRugby) March 26, 2022
It was probably one of those matches where the home side didn't want the first half to end when it did, although with Jack Carty taking the restart you wouldn't bet against them picking up where they left off.
However the most important substitution of the match took had taken place on the Leinster side of things during the break - no offence to Chris Cosgrove but his time will hopefully come in more conventional circumstances down the line and Leinster badly needed Ciarán Frawley's return to action.
The first ten minutes of the half were cagey to say the least with most of the play around halfway and although the longer Connacht remained ahead the better it looked for them, it was also very important for them to get that first score and another crooked dart of theirs (marginal this time I thought), this time failing to take advantage of a Jimmy O'Brien kick out on the full, eventually led to our 2nd try.
First we had fixed the issues in our scrum to earn a penalty advantage but now we were starting to use our backs to find the gap left by Daly's conspicuous absence and sending it back and forth across the pitch we worked our way far enough into opposition territory for the advantage to be over.
Then Rhys Ruddock went on a charge into their 22 and now we were back into a series of picks and go from 5 metres out and eventually it was that man Hawkshaw making my doubts about him look absolutely ridiculous as he defied challenges by three Connacht defenders to muscle his way over.
Next after our linespeed thwarted our hosts on their next bout of possession at midfield, Hawkshaw used the transition well to force them back to their own 22 and after a good chase from our forwards, Ruddock won it back for us. Instead of a pick and go this time it was a show and go from Luke McGrath at the next breakdown that saw him through under the posts.
One thing I have said about Connacht this season is that you had to be wary because they were capable of putting 14 points on you in the space of a couple of minutes...ironically that is actually what we did to them in what was to be fair an unusual match situation. But we still had to push for that bonus point which was by no means certain, and a Sammy Arnold jackle put paid to our next visit to their end of the pitch.
Again to Conancht's credit they never gave up finding ways around our defence, with a couple of chips over the top almost paying off for them but eventually a turnover saw Jimmy O'Brien spot a gap and force us onto the front foot, with again Hawkshaw doing really well exploiting the space in their backfield by planting a kick that made John Porch turn in his own 22, leading to a fumble which allowed Frawley to make picking up and touching down look way, way easier than it was for the bonus point try.
Now absolutely nothing was going right for Connacht, and yet another lineout misfire led to our next try - a neat little dummy from Frawley followed by a backhanded offload put Tommy O'Brien in the clear out wide and he got over in the corner easily for number 5.
A penalty from the restart put us back into their half and now the rest of our bench was getting involved as Josh Murphy, also bound for Connacht next season, surged towards the line setting up yet another series of phases. In the Harpin WhatsApp group we were discussing how Max Deegan may not have built on his promising debut season for Leinster but one thing you can say about him, he knows how to get on the end of a score in this league and he did so again here.
Had the match been 15 v 15 I fancied the Connacht bench to be on top in the closing stages but the way this one went even the introduction of talent like Blade, Boyle and Dillane couldn't prevent them from looking beaten as the clock ticked through the 70s, and we probably saved our best try for last.
It was another scrum penalty around midfield that got us one more attacking lineout around their 22. After Molony took the dart a series of crisp passes through the backline saw the ball end up perfectly in the path of Tommy O'Brien running a superb line and he barely had to break stride to gather and go over to complete the rout.
Not much you can add to the writeup for a match like this; there was the red card, a purple patch for the home side followed by an excellent recovery by Leinster . Ciaran Frawley deserved the PotM award because without his return to the pitch it may have taken longer for us to get going after the break which may in turn have given the home side an opening.
But Hawkshaw's contribution was still worthy of an honourable mention in the title because he really did well to find the weak points in Connacht's shorthanded resistance and no doubt their fans will a least appreciate a taste of what they will be getting next season.
The two O'Briens Jimmy and Tommy also impressed not only here but throughout this block of matches and the question now is about which players will have earned a place in our European thinking over the weeks to come. As for Connacht, one thing you can be sure we will not do it take them for granted in a couple of weeks' time, no matter how many more internationals return to our team sheet.
Like I said earlier, the five points were really useful as they now represent the gap between us and the rest of the URC - it's good to have a bit of breathing room especially with the South African sides starting to creep into the playoff picture as expected.
So our trilogy against the Westies gets put on hold next week as we go down for the Thomond Park fixture which COVID first kicked from St Stephens Day before Ed Sheeran kicked it back from the final round of matches. Obviously we'll both need to start feeding some international stars back into the squad so it will be interesting to see how the tteamsheets will look.
Next here at Harpin Manor I'll be chatting to Michelle Tobin on the podcast to get an opposition view ahead of next weekend's match, and then we'll have the rest of our usual features like the TV listings, a preview and the daily Front 5 articles as well so be sure and stay tuned, many thanks as always for checking out our writeup. JLP
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