Having last beaten Connacht’s Juniors in 2010 (23-17), Leinster looked to reverse 2011’s Donnybrook defeat to the incumbent interpro champions in Loughrea on Saturday.

They failed.

Separated by six points last year courtesy of a plucky 20-14 win to Connacht, the result and margin remained the same on Saturday 24-18 in favour of Loughrea locals Mark Mullins, Willie Cullinane and their west coast colleagues. And while Connacht could well afford to celebrate come 4.00pm, they were staring down the barrel of an ignominious defeat and uninspiring final 60minutes midway through the first half.

Connacht kicked off. Little did they (and the 260 supporters sideline) know it would prove their most-enterprising period of play for the next quarter of an hour. Handling and ball-security was near non-existent. Straight-running in the midfield was conspicuous by absence, and poor tactical kicking in open play compounded their woes when under pressure.

Leinster posted its first points five-and-a-half minutes in courtesy of a converted try under the black dot.

Confusion and non-cohesion reigned supreme whenever Connacht managed to get the ball off anyone in a blue jersey, and mere seconds would pass before the ball wound up once again in blue hands.

Bizarrely, where they looked rusty and dull on attack, Connacht shone in defence. Three first up tackles were missed in the entirety of the first half, and the tidal wave of swarming frustration which swelled on the inside most likely left Leinster’s ball-runners wishing they’d been put down properly the first time. Skipper Mairtin Lee, one of four survivors from the team which beat Leinster 12months prior, was among the more bruising candidates responsible for the bonejarring clean-up, ably-backed by another 2011 survivor Brian Murphy of Monivea.

To their credit, Connacht’s defence kicked in from the opening whistle but given the amount of practice they had in the first quarter it was hardly surprising.

Leinster posted a penalty shortly after its try to go 10-nil ahead before centre Jerome Harrimate and livewire openside John Hayes linked well to move play into the Leinster half. Fullback Robert O’Beirne closed the gap by three with a well-struck penalty and having dusted off their cobwebs the Connacht clan fired its as-yet-unemployed pistons and started to exert some dominance.

The Connacht scrum, which had looked solid but not spectacular, kicked into overdrive and on two occasions dismantled the visiting pack. On nearly every other occasion bar the final 15minutes of the game, Leinster fought tooth-and-nail to stay bound in the face of a well-oiled engine room opposite hellbent on atoning for any early shortfalls.

Harrimate paid little heed to the 13 on his back and, with lock Murphy and hooker Lee, became one of six loose forwards (with Hayes, Cullinane and Stephen Burke) causing untold headaches for blue ball-carriers at the breakdown. Stand-in referee Tom Horkan punished the desperate and outnumbered Leinster ball-carriers and Connacht grew in confidence to begin attacking without ball-in-hand.

With 10 to go in the first spell, Boys Club winger Pete Cosgrove latched onto the ball 35m out surrounded by an ocean blue. He shook off two with ease, tore into a third 10m down the track, fell to ground, rose again, sent two more sprawling and shot the final 15m to the tryline soundtracked by vocal cheers from the Connacht faithful.

On the balance of the first 20minutes coach Ambrose Conboy would have lined up a salvo colourful enough to make a pirate blush but Connacht’s near faultless second quarter had erased many of the negatives. With the breeze at their backs his instructions were simple: score first, live downtown later.

Scrumhalf Greg Faherty, the third of last year’s squad survivors welcomed brawny Tuam loosie Mick Ward (the fourth) to the fold 15 minutes in after Kevin Corcoran made mincemeat of his opposition winger for Connacht’s second try.

For the next 15minutes the hosts ran riot. Plucky Leinster defence stemmed the flow of points, and a penalty to blue closed the gap briefly to four 17-13, but Connacht looked neither hurried nor harried. When the greens posted a third try in the final 10 minutes (converted) a Leinster comeback from 24-13 down looked nigh on impossible.

Giant Leinster impact sub Damien Broughal and blond-locked blindside Tony Ryan met Connacht head on in the final 10minutes, but Mairtin Lee, prop Paul McCreanor, Mullins and Hayes were everywhere. Again, on the rare occasions a first tackle went amiss, the second wave offered little respite for the unfortunate blue left standing.

Where green frustrations from the opening 20minutes may have proved cancerous in a losing camp, the six-in-a-row victors vented steam at those ahead of (rather than beside) them. Leinster spent the best part of eight minutes pelting into green tacklers on the Connacht goal-line only to be cut down where they stood.

An overlap on the right-hand touch allowed for a final Leinster try, and a 24-18 scoreline offered just reward for a dynamite final hour’s worth of footy.

A more immediate start will help no end against Munster, now Connacht’s only rivals contesting for cup honours this spring.

The Munster v Connacht championship playoff kicks off in Castleisland (Kerry) this weekend coming: now a do-or-die winner takes all clash.

Munster disposed of Ulster 35-14 in a bonus point win which sets this year’s competition up for a champagne finish.

Conboy said after the game that while the first quarter was far from pretty, the defensive ethic never faltered.

“We’ve tried to instil a pretty bruising defensive system, and if the guys are going that hard then they’re bound to miss the occasional target. As you saw on Saturday, it’s what happens straight after that counts and we made it count in our favour.

“The system’s working well, and they’re proud and honest enough to make it work.”

He lamented the sluggish start but said he and co-coach Cory Brown had the happy luxury of addressing it on a winning note rather than wondering whether it brought about a defeat.

“It’s something we’ll discuss sure, but I don’t think it calls for a fundamental rethink. It was unfortunate, but the lads fixed it and got on with the job. The next job awaits.”


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