Connacht exited the Heineken Champions Cup at the round of sixteen after a 56-20 loss to Leinster at the Aviva Stadium today.
Tiernan O’Halloran, Sammy Arnold and Abraham Papali’i crossed tries for the away team and the boot of Jack Carty tacked on five points, but it was Leinster who booked their place in the quarter-final of the competition after a highly entertaining clash at Irish Rugby HQ.
Connacht began with intensity on and off the ball and it bore fruit on the scoreboard after only two minutes. Attacking the breakdown, Cian Prendergast cleverly poached the ball and won a penalty that Jack Carty slotted for a 3-0 lead to the visitors.
The away team – with Carty expertly marshaling the backline – enjoyed the best of the opening ten minutes, with the lion's share of territory and possession that allowed them to put pressure on the Leinster defence. However, the hosts managed to wrestle momentum back when future Connacht player Josh Murphy started a move that saw Jamison Gibson Park field a pass from James Lowe to run in for the games opening try. Jonathan Sexton converted and Connacht found themselves 7-3 behind after an exciting opening to the game.
With their tails up, Leinster began to turn the screw in search of more scores, but sturdy Connacht defence – where Bundee Aki was particularly dedicated and impressive – held them out for multiple phases until Robbie Henshaw crashed over the line from close range with the half approaching halfway. Sexton added the extras and the away team were 14-3 down.
Two tries became three when Josh van Flier’s carry gave Leinster field position and they worked the ball to Tadgh Furlong and the Ireland tight head worked his way over the line from a short distance for Leinster’s third try with the game approaching its 30th minute. Sexton converted and the scoreline read Leinster 21-3 Connacht.
The visitors' task got even harder when Aki was yellow-carded just before the interval and, from the resulting penalty, Leinster immediately made their man advantage count. Sexton’s cutting pass found Lowe and the Ireland international bundled his way over the line for the home team's fourth try of the half. Sexton made no mistake from the kicking tee and Leinster lead 28-3, a lead which they held going into the halftime break.
The home team began the second half in a similar manner to which they ended the first and Henshaw registered his second try after a move brought them from right to left and the Irish international touched down. Sexton kept his 100% kicking record alive and Leinster were 35-3 ahead.
Connacht grew into the game from that point and, after Aki returned from his sin-binning, they began to pile the pressure on Leinster. A series of penalties in the home team's 22 saw the away team attack and they eventually prized open Leinster with Carty beautifully feeding O’Halloran and the full-back dove in for the try to bring the score to 35-8. With two tries in the opening five minutes, the second half started in a hugely entertaining fashion.
Connacht looked reenergized by the try and they began to launch more attacks, but replacement Jack Aungier was yellow-carded and the away team once again found themselves a man short. Leinster weren’t long in making the extra man count and Lowe notched his second after a clever line and powerful finish. The boot of Sexton was accurate for the conversion and Leinster were 42-8 to the good with almost an hour gone.
Restored to their whole compliment and with several alterations from the bench bringing fresh impetus, Connacht were next to trouble the scoreboard. Phase after phase close to the Leinster line brought the away team close before replacement Sammy Arnold muscled his way over the in the left corner to bring the score to 42-13.
The second half was an open affair and the try-scoring pendulum once again swung Leinster’s way when Lowe broke through for his hattrick. Replacement Ross Byrne slotted the conversion and Leinster were 49-13 ahead with less than fifteen minutes left.
Connacht’s resolve wasn’t broken, however, and they notched their third try on the 70th minute when replacement Papali’i powered over the try line. Carty nailed the conversion and Connacht broke the 20-point mark, with the score reading Leinster 49-20 Connacht.
Leinster completed the scoring when Lowe caught a Byrne to kick to touch down his fourth try.