Connacht fell to a tough defeat at a packed-out Sportsground on Saturday night in a thrilling encounter that saw clinical Leinster take the spoils and book a home Guinness PRO12 semi-final.
With John Muldoon – on his landmark 300th Connacht appearance – leading manfully from the front, Connacht played some scintillating rugby but Leinster were absolutely clinical on the night and took every chance that came their way.
Some ferocious early tackles from Connacht and Kieran Marmion helped to force an early penalty with Ronaldson slotting the long-ranger to make it 3-0 within two minutes.
Leinster responded well and were off the mark before the seventh minute as winger Adam Byrne showed great hands to pop a pass inside for Zane Kirchner to touch down in the right corner.
Byrne soon touched down himself on 10 minutes as he pounced on a Ronaldson pass to run in an intercept try from 60 metres. Ross Byrne knocked over the easy conversion and Leinster led 12-3.
This time, it was Connacht’s turn to muster a riposte, and when Denis Buckley forced the penalty, Ronaldson made no mistake to narrow the deficit to six.
An electric Tiernan O’Halloran break down the right wing then set Connacht up for another attack and an impeccable crossfield kick from Jack Carty found Danie Poolman on the left flank and the winger ran in under the posts for a magnificent try with Ronaldson’s extras giving Connacht a 13-12 lead.
That advantage didn’t last long, however, as Ross Byrne’s first penalty for Leinster moved the visitors back in front on 22 minutes.
A third penalty for Ronaldson on the half hour made it 16-15 to Connacht but Leinster crossed via a Rory O’Loughlin try in the left corner following Luke McGrath's break as Leinster moved 20-16 in front.
Connacht had the last word of a breathless first half with Ronaldson slotting his third penalty to narrow the deficit to just a single point at the interval, 20-19.
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Within three minutes, Leinster scored their fourth try as captain Rhys Ruddock touched down from close range and Ross Byrne landed the tricky conversion as the visitors went 26-24 in front.
As Connacht pushed for the next score, they were hit by a sucker punch as Barry Daly hacked a loose pass clear and the ball bounced up perfectly for the replacement to score under the posts with Ross Byrne’s conversion giving Leinster a 10-point advantage.
And a second penalty from Ross Byrne on 76 minutes sealed the win for Leinster.
The home support roared Connacht on throughout and gave Muldoon a hearty reception at full-time as he was presented with a special plaque by Connacht President Pat Piggott to make the incredible achievement of playing 300 games for his home province.
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Connacht: Tiernan O’Halloran; Niyi Adeolokun (Eoin Griffin, 10), Bundee Aki, Craig Ronaldson, Danie Poolman; Jack Carty (Steve Crosbie, 70), Kieran Marmion (Caolin Blade 36-40, 73); Denis Buckley (JP Cooney, 70), Dave Heffernan (Shane Delahunt, 64), Finlay Bealham (Dominic Robertson-McCoy, 70); Quinn Roux (Sean O’Brien, 21), Andrew Browne; Eoin McKeon (Naulia Dawai, h-t), Jake Heenan, John Muldoon (C).
Leinster: Zane Kirchner; Adam Byrne, Rory O’Loughlin, Noel Reid, Dave Kearney; Ross Byrne, Luke McGrath; Cian Healy, James Tracy, Mike Ross; Ross Molony, Hayden Triggs; Dominic Ryan, Josh van der Flier, Rhys Ruddock (C).
Replacements: Seán Cronin, Peter Dooley, Michael Bent, Ian Nagle, Peadar Timmins, Nick McCarthy, Tom Daly, Barry Daly.
Referee: Ian Davies (WRU)