The match-up last Sunday in Galway was supposed to a glorified training run for Leinster as they prepare for the tougher challenges ahead in Europe, but instead it turned into a little war of attrition as Connacht took to the field positively billowing smoke.
It was, in the end, an heroic performance by the underdogs. They scored the only try of the game through Mike McCarthy, and then when the same player was sent off for violent conduct, they had to play virtually the entire second half with 14 men as Leinster desperately tried to salvage something from what was another dismal display.
If Connacht are fiercely proud of their identity, they’re savvy enough to realize their place in the overall scheme of things as a feeder province for the richer franchises of Munster, Leinster and Ulster, but on this memorable occasion at the Sportsground, they fired like one of the big guns.
There were any number of outstanding contributions but young out half, Ian Keatley, with his four penalties and a conversion, not to mention a critical try-saving tackle on Rocky Elsom at the death, was probably the pick. Others such as captain John Muldoon, Jonny O’Connor, Sean Cronin and Frank Murphy also caught the eye as Connacht, who were threatened with extinction by the IRFU as recently as 2002, celebrated one of their finest hours.
While coach, Michael Bradley, was full of praise for his players, he also took the opportunity to remind Irish rugby’s governing body of its responsibilities. With too many young prospects warming the benches at Munster, Leinster and Ulster, he was adamant that the country’s best talent could be better served by a nurturing period at Connacht.
“Surely the IRFU can identify promising players and suggest to them to come to Connacht for a period of time and that we work together for the betterment of Irish rugby. It’s about leadership from the top down. The other way where we approach players to come and join us hasn’t worked.
“Players are now taking the choice of sitting on the bench or getting the occasional run in second-string sides because they’re with big clubs on big money and it’s a nice career. But how is that helping [Ireland coach] Declan Kidney. We need more Irish players of an international, or potential international standard playing on a weekly basis to give Kidney options. It’s not about winning games. It’s about the future of Irish rugby, and Irish rugby needs Connacht as much as Connacht needs Irish rugby.”
Bradley’s broadside couldn’t have been better timed. Pouring more resources into Connacht might well be the way forward for the IRFU certainly on the basis of what star-studded Leinster have produced so far this season. Comprehensively defeated by Munster in their previous Celtic League game, they might have decided to rest the likes of Brian O’Driscoll, Malcolm O’Kelly, Bernard Jackman and Jamie Heaslip, but this was still a hugely negative result for coach Michael Cheika and his squad immediately before the start of the European Cup.
Devoid of leadership, they had to rely on the boot of Felipe Contepomi for their points, and with Jonathan Sexton struggling for form in the key out-half position, there was little or no structure to their play.
Level 9-9 at the interval, Connacht struck a vital blow early in the second half when McCarthy finished off a sweeping movement with a spectacular try, however, the high-fives and back-slapping spilled over into a skirmish between the rival players. Leinster captain, Leo Cullen, appeared to have elbowed Keatley and then McCarthy led with his head on Elsom who retaliated with a series of punches.
The outcome was a yellow card for Elsom, and a second yellow for McCarthy which meant automatic dismissal. Reduced to 14 men, Connacht dug in and fully deserved their second Celtic League success of the season. Bradley and his charges can only hope that the IRFU was watching.
Meanwhile, as Leinster lick their wounds, Munster will kick off the European Cup campaign in a rude state of health. Admittedly, their 25-17 win over a tenacious Glasgow at Thomond Park wasn’t as convincing as expected, but they go into Friday’s game against French side, Montauban, full of confidence.
The Glasgow victory gives them a 100 per cent record at the top of the Celtic League table, and with tries from Peter Stringer, Barry Murphy and Doug Howlett, the win was more relevant than the performance. “It was always going to be difficult coming off an emotional victory [over Leinster] last week,” said coach Tony McGahan, “but there were certain aspects that weren’t good enough. There was no need to concede anything like the numbers of penalties we did.”
Still, minor gripes for a team coming nicely to the boil, and it would be impossible to think that Montauban won’t pay for some of Munster’s errors at a heaving Thomond Park on Friday.
As for Ulster, there was better news following their disappointing opening to the season when they held off the challenge of Edinburgh for a 13-9 victory at Ravenhill. With the might of Stade Francais due in Belfast on Saturday, this was a valuable result for Ulster who secured the points with a David Pollock try and two penalties and a conversion from Clinton Schifcofske.