Connacht make history with epic victory over Leinster in Pro 12 final
For the first time in their 121-year history, Connacht have won a major trophy as they brilliantly claimed the Guinness Pro12 title.
Pat Lam’s side utterly deserved their win as they out-classed Leinster with a scintillating display of attacking rugby.
It must have made for uncomfortable viewing for Ireland coach Joe Schmidt who earlier this week picked all of Leinster’s back-three players in his touring squad for South Africa, leaving all of Connacht’s out.
Tiernan O’Halloran, Matt Healy and Niyi Adeolokun responded with a try each and all of them had a big all-round contribution.
They were helped by a wonderfully abrasive display from Ultan Dillane, Robbie Henshaw and Bundee Aki who got in Leinster’s faces and an excellent performance from half-backs Kieran Marmion and AJ MacGinty who carried out the ambitious game-plan with calm assurance.
After winning his 275th cap for his province, John Muldoon had the honour of lifting the province’s first piece of silverware after claiming the man of the match award. Many of those days were difficult ones and it was fitting that the honour was the 33-year-old’s.
Given it was their first final, it was understandable that Connacht had to feel their way into the game a little and for the first few minutes they had to withstand early pressure from Leinster who bristling with intent.
But once the westerners got used to their surroundings and weathered the initial storm, they began to enjoy themselves.
It was as if Leinster hadn’t watched Lam’s side all season as the men in green moved the ball wide and found space every time.
Healy fired the first shot, taking Dave Kearney on the outside and chipping ahead when he might have looked inside to O’Halloran. Luke Fitzgerald covered across and ran it into touch and, while Muldoon knocked on in phase-play, it was a sign of things to come.
The opening try came from initial ruck pressure from Connacht’s forwards who forced Eoin Reddan into a box-kick. Healy fielded the ball, looked up and spotted a big gap outside Ben Te’o and raced through it.
Leinster scrambled, but Aly Muldowney’s big clear-out ensured quick ball for Kieran Marmion who fed O’Halloran and he stood Rob Kearney up and beat his opposite number to score.
The travelling green army erupted as AJ MacGinty converted, but Connacht weren’t stopping there as their dominance grew and the Blues needed a despairing Jack McGrath tackle to halt Adeolokun in his tracks.
The Nigerian winger wouldn’t be stopped in his next attempt, however, as he completed a brilliant piece of interplay that started with Robbie Henshaw breaking Jamie Heaslip’s tackle before Healy, O’Halloran and Aki kept the ball alive for Marmion to find his winger wide. He chipped the ball over Luke Fitzgerald’s head and beat Eoin Reddan for pace to touch down.
MacGinty missed his conversion, but made up for it with the penalty that stretched his side’s lead to 15-0 after a Leinster hand emerged from the ruck to cynically slap the ball out of Marmion’s hand after Dillane had made huge gains up the left wing. Connacht were rampant and Leinster were barely hanging on. Aki levelled Johnny Sexton with a monstrous hit, while the four time champions’ shape fell apart and their lineout crumbled. The only thing going their way was the scrum. Lam’s men couldn’t add to their lead before half-time and an Aki knock-on and a big Leinster scrum forced the penalty that allowed Sexton get his side on the score-board.
Connacht responded by keeping hold of the ball for the next five minutes until Jordi Murphy went off his feet but MacGinty was short with his penalty from half-way. Leinster attempted to respond, but their attack and skills again let them down as Hayden Triggs knocked on and Marmion immediately countered and it almost resulted in a try as he stepped Ross Molony, brilliantly side-stepped Fitzgerald and must have thought he’d scored until Sexton got back and hauled him down as Reddan got in to hold up the ball.
Despite turning over their initial attack off the scrum, they wouldn’t be denied as Sean O’Brien won possession back and, after a long series of phases, Henshaw switched the play to MacGinty who deftly chipped in behind for Healy to score. Leinster thought they’d scored immediately when Zane Kirchner powered over with his first touch, but referee Nigel Owens called it back for a dubious forward pass from Sexton.
They got the score they desired with 13 minutes remaining with Owens drawing the ire of the Connacht fans for allowing play to continue as O’Halloran was treated for a head injury. Leo Cullen’s men took full advantage of their extra man, stretching the defence before Ben Te’o put Sean Cronin over for a try.
Sexton converted and the lead was back to 10 points and O’Halloan’s exit compounded John Cooney’s injury and Lam was forced to re-jig his backline entirely as the Leinster waves kept coming but a Luke McGrath knock-on allowed Connacht some breathing space and they played their way home from there.
CONNACHT – T O’Halloran (S O’Leary 69-72); N Adeolokun, R Henshaw, B Aki, M Healy; AJ MacGinty, K Marmion (J Cooney 61) (P Robb 66); R Loughney (R Ah You 69), T McCartney (D Heffernan 72), F Bealham; U Dillane (A Browne 62), A Muldowney; E McKeon (S O’Brien h-t), J Heenan, J Muldoon (capt).
LEINSTER – R Kearney (Z Kirchner 61); D Kearney (I Madigan 76), G Ringrose, B Te’o, L Fitzgerald; J Sexton, E Reddan (L McGrath 58); J McGrath, R Strauss (S Cronin 42), M Ross (T Furlong 42); R Molony (J Conan 62), M Kearney (H Triggs 17); R Ruddock, J Murphy, J Heaslip (capt).