Leinster’s season ended in bitter disappointment in Edinburgh where they lost the all-Irish GUINNESS PRO12 final to first-time champions Connacht…
Driven on by man-of-the-match John Muldoon, Pat Lam’s charges outscored table-topping Leinster by three tries to one to win a well-attended decider at BT Murrayfield.
Two terrifically-taken scores from Tiernan O’Halloran and Niyi Adeolokun, allied to five points from the boot of AJ MacGinty, shot Connacht into a 15-0 interval lead.
Matt Healy’s 10th try of the campaign then cancelled out Jonathan Sexton’s lone penalty and despite a converted effort from replacement Sean Cronin, Leinster were very much second best on the day.
The victory was the perfect end to Connacht’s best ever season in the league, following up on their second place finish in the standings with knockout wins over 2015 champions Glasgow Warriors and Leinster, the 2013 and 2014 winners.
The match was preceded by a minute’s silence in honour of Devin Toner’s father Peter who died suddenly yesterday, with the Leinster players also wearing black armbands.
Neither side could capitalise on early close-in lineouts amid an open and exciting first ten minutes, as ace tactician Sexton and the fast-chasing Healy both stood out.
It was fitting that Healy, so dangerous throughout the season, had a crucial part in the opening 12th-minute score, the winger whizzing back over halfway on a kick return and then full-back O’Halloran cut inside his opposite number Rob Kearney to finish brilliantly to the left of the posts.
MacGinty converted and a handling error from Kearney allowed Connacht to resume on the attack, with the heavily-involved Robbie Henshaw and Adeolokun offering an increasing threat behind the scrum.
The westerners’ ball-handling ambition was rewarded again in the 21st minute, excellent hands from Henshaw and O’Halloran setting up Adeolokun for a deftly-done chip and chase effort that saw him get the better of the covering Eoin Reddan.
MacGinty, who missed the conversion from the right, was back on target with a 27th minute penalty, the build-up including another sparkling run from Adeolokun and a powerful charge from Ultan Dillane.
Having lost Mick Kearney to a head injury and missed some costly tackles, Leinster desperately needed to respond before half-time, but their error count increased and a last-minute knock-on from Richardt Strauss summed up their inaccuracies.
At least for Leo Cullen and his coaching staff, the scrum showed signs of supremacy in the first half, and with Cronin and Tadhg Furlong brought on, a scrum penalty allowed Sexton to open his side’s account with 43 minutes on the clock.
MacGinty dropped a long range penalty short, but an excellent break from deep by Kieran Marmion was followed by a wonderful, weaving run into the Leinster 22 by Tom McCartney. It deserved a try but a desperate tackle from Sexton denied close to the line.
Connacht maintained their presence deep in Leinster territory, though, gradually wearing down the defence and MacGinty’s neat grubber kick teed up Healy for a timely try and a 20-3 lead.
Entering the final quarter, Leinster replacement Zane Kirchner’s try, following a promising break by Dave Kearney, was ruled out for a forward pass from Sexton to Ben Te’o.
The score eventually came with 14 minutes remaining, Cronin evading a tackle from Peter Robb to go over in the right corner after arguably Leinster’s best attacking spell of the game. Sexton’s conversion cut the gap to 10 points.
However, the four-time champions’ attempts to turn the screw further were met by some typically dogged defending from Connacht. MacGinty’s boot got the men in green out of their 22 and although Muldoon and company failed to turn a five-metre scrum into points, they forced a final fumble in attack from Kirchner to confirm themselves as 2015/16 champions.
CONNACHT SCORERS: T. O’Halloran (1 try), N. Adeolokun (1 try), M. Healy (1 try), AJ MacGinty (1 conversion and 1 penalty)
LEINSTER SCORERS: S. Cronin (1 try), J. Sexton (1 conversion and 1 penalty)
CONNACHT: Tiernan O’Halloran; Niyi Adeolokun, Robbie Henshaw, Bundee Aki, Matt Healy; AJ MacGinty, Kieran Marmion; Ronan Loughney, Tom McCartney, Finlay Bealham, Ultan Dillane, Aly Muldowney, Eoin McKeon, Jake Heenan, John Muldoon CAPTAIN.
REPLACEMENTS: Dave Heffernan, JP Cooney, Rodney Ah You, Andrew Browne, Sean O’Brien, John Cooney, Shane O’Leary, Peter Robb.
15. Rob Kearney (Zane Kirchner, 60)
14. Dave Kearney (Ian Madigan, 75)
13. Garry Ringrose
12. Ben Te’o
11. Luke Fitzgerald
10. Jonathan Sexton
9. Eoin Reddan (Luke McGrath, 57)
1. Jack McGrath (Peter Dooley, 71)
2. Richardt Strauss (Sean Cronin, 41)
3. Mike Ross (Tadhg Furlong, 41)
4. Ross Molony (Jack Conan, 62)
5. Mick Kearney (Hayden Triggs, 16)
6. Rhys Ruddock
7. Jordi Murphy
8. Jamie Heaslip CAPTAIN
REFEREE: Nigel Owens (WRU); ASSISTANT REFEREES: Ian Davies, Ben Whitehouse (both WRU): 4TH OFFICIAL: Lloyd Linton; 5TH OFFICIAL: Bob Nevins; 6TH OFFICIAL: Tom Mc Nicol (all SRU); TIMEKEEPER: Paul Cyphus (SRU); CITING COMMISSIONER: Maurizio Vancini (FIR); TMO: Jon Mason (WRU).