Connacht threw the Vodafone Women’s Interprovincial Championship title race wide open with an epic 18-17 win over a much-fancied Leinster at the Sportsground.
VODAFONE WOMEN’S INTERPROVINCIAL CHAMPIONSHIP – ROUND 1:
Saturday, August 12 –
CONNACHT 18 LEINSTER 17, the Sportsground
Scorers: Connacht: Tries: Méabh Deely 2, Orla Dixon; Pen: Nicole Fowley
Leinster: Tries: Eimear Corri, Sene Taiti-Fanene, Naoise O’Reilly; Con: Dannah O’Brien
HT: Connacht 8 Leinster 5
Ireland international Méabh Deely gleefully scored the all-important 81st-minute try, but Connacht still had to endure eight more minutes – including a penalty miss from Leinster captain Hannah O’Connor – before being confirmed as winners of this six-try thriller.
Connacht’s only previous Interpro victory over Leinster was an 8-5 triumph at Tuam RFC back in December 2016, and this result gives Lyndon Jones’ charges a real shot at making September’s final.
The first round clash exploded into life with a Deely try after just 94 seconds. A penalty from captain and Vodafone player-of-the-match Nicole Fowley had the westerners leading 8-5 at half-time.
Despite the rain and wind, Leinster lock Eimear Corri showed her finishing skills with a terrific 15th-minute score. Aoife Wafer also starred for the Blues on her debut, albeit that she spent 10 minutes in the sin bin.
The visitors looked to be taking control when Sene Taiti-Fanene and new cap Naoise O’Reilly both crossed during the third quarter. The home side were suddenly trailing 17-8 and with centre Clara Barrett in the sin bin.
Full-back Deely, still just 22, rallied Connacht by setting up replacement Orla Dixon to score on the hour mark. Even better followed when the Ballinasloe native gathered Barrett’s offload to complete her brace and dramatically decide the contest.
Following a number of retirements, this new-look Connacht team got the whirlwind start that they craved. Returning scrum half Aoibheann Reilly, who had a tremendous game, attacked off a ruck inside halfway and slipped out of Christy Haney’s tackle, tearing through to send Deely over from 10 metres out.
Fowley missed the conversion from the left as the rain came down. Connacht had the wind behind them and commanded the subsequent phases, with Fowley orchestrating things from out-half and Ava Ryder making an eye-catching break on the right.
Dannah O’Brien’s knock-on of a pass summed up what was a frustrating opening spell for Leinster. Haney and O’Connor led a counter ruck that got them out of trouble near their own posts, and Wafer did likewise further down the field, with Aoife Mooregobbling up the turnover.
It was hard-earned possession for Leinster and they turned it into a superb try from 35 metres out. Flanker Wafer’s one-handed offload released Corri who shrugged off both Karly Tierney and Shannon Touhey, her impressive acceleration taking her clear and Deely’s last-ditch challenge was not enough to prevent the grounding.
O’Brien missed the conversion from out wide, leaving the sides on five points each, before Wexford youngster Wafer continued to stand out. It was her powerful run that had Connacht scrambling back close to their own try-line, with Fowley rescuing the situation.
The error count increased as conditions worsened, although Laoise McGonagle led the way for Connacht, regularly making metres when cutting inside off her wing. Just when Deely and Touhey were carrying with lots of intent, Wafer won a relieving penalty at the breakdown.
Nonetheless, the Leinster openside saw yellow soon after, her late tackle on Fowley landing her in the bin. The Connacht skipper cleared the crossbar with the resulting penalty attempt from just inside Leinster’s 10-metre line.
Connacht were unable to force a try before Wafer’s return. Their best chance came from a big carry by centre Touhey via a scrum just inside the visitors’ 22. Leinster held firm with Ruth Delaney, on debut in the second row, securing an eventual turnover.
Early in the second period, Leinster got their maul going. It was a case of third time lucky when a big drive made 15 metres for them, allowing Katie Whelan to send Taiti-Fanene hurtling through a gap between Fowley and Barrett and in beside the posts. O’Brien converted.
Barrett was binned just five minutes later, having caught the advancing O’Reilly with a high tackle. Tania Rosser’s side wasted little time in taking advantage as Wicklow flyer O’Reilly evaded the clutches of McGonagle to score, following some well-timed passes from O’Brien, Taiti-Fanene and Aoife Dalton.
Showing their battling qualities, Connacht entered the final quarter just four points in arrears (17-13). Fed by Reilly off a scrum, Deely showed a clean pair of heels to Taiti-Fanene, breaking down the right wing and gleefully putting Dixon over for her province’s second unconverted try.
Back came Leinster right into try-scoring range, as their pack and bench built serious momentum. Just inches away from scoring, replacement hooker Lisa Callan was held up by a combination of Kayla Waldron, who had an all-action cameo off the bench, Eva McCormack and Touhey.
Although time was not on their side, Connacht kept believing. Reilly produced another excellent break, this time from a scrum. Her support runners were crowded out but it was a warning that Leinster, who had gone close again through Clare Gorman, did not heed.
Dixon fought hard on the ground to retain possession for Connacht, and suddenly a three-on-two situation opened up for Barrett to dart past Jess Keating on the outside. Her well-timed offload back inside released Deely for the try-line and the home crowd were in raptures.
Fowley’s conversion attempt fell wide to the right, and the one-point lead proved enough in a frantic finish. O’Connor took on a penalty effort from inside Connacht’s 10-metre line, but the kick faded and Connacht carried back downfield to end a memorable encounter on their terms.
CONNACHT: Méabh Deely; Ava Ryder, Clara Barrett, Shannon Touhey, Laoise McGonagle; Nicole Fowley (capt), Aoibheann Reilly; Grainne O’Loughlin, Lily Brady, Shannon Heapes, Sonia McDermott, Eva McCormack, Orla Fenton, Karly Tierney, Ivana Kiripati.
Replacements used: Beibhinn Gleeson for Kiripati (9 mins), Niamh O’Grady for O’Loughlin (45), Kayla Waldron for Gleeson, Orla Dixon for Ryder (both 55), Dearbhla Canty for Heapes, Stacey Hanley for McDermott (both 67), Mollie Starr for Fenton (69), Olivia Haverty for Reilly (79).
LEINSTER: Naoise O’Reilly; Elise O’Byrne-White, Aoife Dalton, Sene Taiti-Fanene, Clare Gorman; Dannah O’Brien, Katie Whelan; Aoife Moore, Sarah Delaney, Christy Haney, Ruth Campbell, Eimear Corri, Aoife Wafer, Molly Boyne, Hannah O’Connor (capt).
Replacements used: Lisa Callan for Delaney (18 mins), Caoimhe Molloy for Haney (60), Lisa Mullen for D O’Brien, Meabh O’Brien for O’Reilly (both 68), Katelynn Doran for Campbell, Amy O’Mahony for Wafer (both 74), Ailsa Hughes for Whelan (75), Jess Keating for Moore (79).
Referee: Henry Richmond (IRFU)