Connacht achieved the near-impossible by not only winning their first ever final, but by doing it playing a brand of scintillating, attractive rugby. Three sumptuous tries from the men in green was matched only by one Leinster dot.
The losing side were shell-shocked in the first half, trailing 15-0 at the interval. They did their best to claw back, but Connacht were not to be denied.
Super Rugby up north
Connacht attacking from everywhere, as they’ve done all season, in the biggest game of their history made for a showcase match full of biff and sprinting. The Galway side will throw passes metres from their own line and with Bundee Aki plus a back three of Tiernan O’Halloran, Matt Healy and Niyi Adeolokun, they had the right sticks of dynamite to blow this match apart. Ignoring the fantastic narrative of Connacht climbing past all others to stun the rest of the league, it is the rugby they have played all season that has had fans swooning. Well played Pat Lam, for letting his boys off the leash on such a high-pressure day.
Adeolokun’s try was worth the price of admission, alone. Kieran Marmion took an Aki pop off the deck and fed the winger, who chipped over the top, kicked it forward on the bounce and sprung past Eoin Reddan to score. That Healy also profited from a beautifully laced grubber by AJ MacGinty was just too much for Leinster. Breathtaking.
The Connacht pack offloaded effectively and ran hard, while Leinster’s heavies did their best to pinch ball here and there. At least from the Galway side’s point of view, it is great to see a game played at such a pace that does not pass the grunters by. Want an example? Look at Ally Muldowney’s offloads or Tom McCartney’s almost-try.
After a seismic smash by Aki, you’d think that Sexton was chips. He was regularly clutching a bad shoulder in the first half. But he toughed it out, held up McCartney over the try line and was giving referee Nigel Owens plenty to think about in stoppages in play.
There was a big clash in the middle of the park as Zane Kirchner carried into O’Halloran, with body hitting head, resulting in the Connacht full-back laid out on the floor. Owens spotted the player, but allowed the ball to be passed over him. O’Halloran spent a long time on the deck and some of the crowd made their feelings clear with boos. As the medics attended the fallen back, Leinster scored and converted to bring the game within ten points. Forgetting about the try: should Owens have stopped play?
O’Halloran returned to the fray after a head injury assessment.
Scouting Ben Te’o
A final like this presents a grand stage to show off your goods to those who may not have seen them before. However, for England fans not used to watching Pro12 rugby, Connacht’s Super Rugby-style will have drawn eyes away from the Leinster centre who Eddie Jones is taking to Australia with him.
Te’o looked incredibly comfy with a defensive set – darting up and down in straight lines – but this was a game with more angles than a snooker match. He carries hard, but again, Leinster’s sustained possessions where never as box office as Connacht’s. Te’o is a man built for Sexton’s structures, but this one was far too loose for such a norm.
28 – the number of defenders Connacht beat during the game
40 – AJ MacGinty’s kicking accuracy, in per cent
5 – The number of mauls Connacht used, compared to Leinster’s zero
Connacht: T O’Halloran (Rep: S O’Leary, 68); N Adeolokun, R Henshaw (Rep: T O’Halloran, 71), B Aki, M Healy; AJ MacGinty, K Marmion (Rep: J Cooney, 60, P Robb, 65); R Loughney (Rep: R Ah You, 68), T McCartney (Rep: D Heffernan, 71), F Bealham, U Dillane, E McKeon (Rep: Sean O’Brien, 40), J Hennan, J Muldoon.
Tries: O’Halloran, Adeolokun, Healy. Cons: MacGinty. Pens: MacGinty
Leinster: R Kearney (Rep: Z Kirchner, 60); D Kearney (Rep: I Madigan, 75), G Ringrose, B Te’o, L Fitzgerald; J Sexton, E Reddan; J McGrath (Rep: P Dooley, 71), R Strauss (Rep: S Cronin, 41), M Ross (Rep: T Furlong, 41), R Molony, M Kearney (Rep: H Triggs, 16), R Ruddock (Rep: J Conan, 62), J Murphy, J Heaslip.
Tries: Cronin. Cons: Sexton. Pens: Sexton
Man of the Match: John Muldoon
Referee: Nigel Owens (Wales)
Attendance: 34, 550