The Connacht women threw this year’s interprovincial series into the great unknown on Saturday, grinding out an unspectacular but honest victory over Leinster in Tuam.

That result  – to Connacht’s credit more an engineered win than a Leinster loss – consigns the Blues to a must-win fixture against an improved Ulster this weekend to retain their perennial top-two provincial billing.

Played in little more than three or four degrees throughout, Leinster and Connacht both sought width and open space despite conditions.

For the hosts, Mairead Coyne (15), Emma Clery (12), Mar’ Sheridan (5) and blindside Heather Cary did much of the ball-carrying in the opening half hour. Aside from a furious first 10 minutes played out between the two 10m lines, Connacht had the rub of the green where territory was concerned inside the blue 40m. Unfortunately, bruising Leinster defence and poor handling conspired against Connacht scores.

Captain Clery had mixed reviews of the first half.

Women's Interprovincial Rugby Series, Tuam RFC, Tuam, Co. Galway 3/12//2016 Connacht vs Leinster Connacht celebrate at the final whistle Mandatory Credit ©INPHO/Tommy Dickson

Women’s Interprovincial Rugby Series, Tuam RFC, Tuam, Co. Galway Credit ©INPHO/Tommy Dickson

“Seemed like we were always defending, tackle, tackle, tackle and no respite but we seemed to be doing it all in front of their posts.

“This Connacht side will gladly tackle all day if it’s down the other end of the pitch. I thought it was a really proud and smart and formidable early defensive effort.”

Blue loose forward trio Dawn Smith, Katie Norris and the experienced Mella Morey were the busiest visitors, asking several questions of Connacht runners and Ulster referee Glenda Mallon.

Ironically, Leinster pivot Michelle Claffey’s decision to alleviate pressure by way of an aerial route later in the half rather than ball-in-hand proved their undoing.

Irish outside back and former county footballer Coyne, a high-ball specialist, caught three clearances on the fly and carved off 25m, 45m and 30m respectively with ball in hand. Her second foray into the Leinster half laid the territorial groundwork for Connacht’s only try. Clery and outhalf Clare Raftery combined well on the wrap-around, freeing up space and an opposition numbers shortfall and any one of three Connacht backs could have dotted down.

Fitting it was, given her initial contribution, that Coyne got on the scoreboard 12m in from touch righthand side. It stayed 5nil to the break.

Connacht coach John-Paul Walsh admonished his charges during the break for overcompensating on backline depth urging them to cut down Leinster’s defensive prep time; sensible advice, given how irksome Clery, Cary and winger Ursula Sammon were with ball.

Defensively, Walsh had few concerns. Three missed tackles were cleaned up immediately, linespeed at the fringe impressed, cover tackles told, and every Leinster clearance had yielded major territorial benefits for the greens.

Backs coach Gavin Foley mentioned similar virtues, urging any backs and forwards regrouping on defence wider out to emulate that linespeed, curtail any Leinster width and trust an impressive green back three to test the visitors on the counter.

The introduction of stalwart Irish 10 Nora Stapleton to partner fellow Leinster international Jenny Murphy for the second spell heaped pressure on Connacht but again, Leinster’s time in the opposition half was a rarity.

Leinster’s breakthrough came via livewire youngster Eimear Corri. Strong, lean and quick, she shook off two defenders on her own 10m, headed left for space, targeted Connacht debutante Shannon Tuohey and broke through. It was a rare blight on Tuohey’s otherwise impressive maiden dancecard, but carried with it a heavy penalty given Corri made short work of the 50m between halfway and the posts.

Connacht and Clare Raftery responded shortly after with a penalty 33m out, lefthand side and with 18mins on the clock, Connacht’s three point buffer afforded little security.

Enter openside Grainne Egan, hooker Ciara O’Connor, Tuohey and the ever-threatening Clery. All four tested those opposite, O’Connor and Egan finding gaps where none existed.

Raftery was dead on with her second penalty six minutes from full-time but dropped it 2m short and with time up shortly after, referee Mallon found fault after fault with Connacht’s swarming defense. Leinster managed to tap-and-go their way 15m from their own goal but faltered short of the halfway to a handling error and Mallon blew for full-time.

In hindsight, Walsh credited Saturday’s success to a unified front.

“Everyone knew what was required as far as accuracy went, and mistakes were fixed and forgiven. Nothing turned to custard.

“The newbies really stood up, Anne-Marie O’Hora, a lock turned prop, and Amelie (Roux) were just so safe in contact, and when you have carriers who draw multiple defenders and still guarantee you clean ball in contact, it at least means you’ve a solid platform to build on again with numbers to play with.”

Clery sang a similar song on reflection.

“We felt comfortable trying things, we felt dominant. Even at 5-5 and 8-5, we felt like we were in charge. Being able to re-align on attack knowing ball is coming back rather than committing extras just to guarantee ball-safety is a luxury.

“Bring on the next one.”

Ulster, who leaked 88 interpro points in 2014 and 96 points last year, squeezed Munster to a convincing but modest 16-3 victory and held the reigning champs scoreless 25 minutes in, adrift only five points 8-3 down at halftime.

Ulster’s week one debutantes will have garnered much experience from their Ravenhill encounter v Munster, and the Northerners should be buoyed further going into week two by the weekend’s County Galway fixture.

Luke O’D

5377a

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