By John O’Sullivan 

 

Connacht will go into next week’s Heineken Champions Cup last 16-second leg at the Aviva Stadium trailing Leinster 26-21 after a physically intense and entertaining affair at the Sportsground tonight. 

 

Despite tries from John Porch and Leva Fifita, it was Leinster who eked out the win and who hold the lead going into the second instalment of the tie. 

 

With the returning Bundee Aki, along with Fifita, Conor Oliver and Porch, instrumental next weekend’s fixture should be similarly enthralling. 

 

Connacht started in a rip-roaring fashion and they made it count after only two minutes. A huge break from Aki, which was facilitated by a Gavin Thornbury offload,  gave the host’s field position, before Tom Farrell – following suit – punctured the visitor’s defence again. Leinster managed to eke a turnover and thought they escaped the danger, but Leva Fifita blocked down their clearing kick. 

 

Regaining possession, the hosts launched another attack, and the ball was worked to Porch on the left wing and the Australian danced over the line to give the home team a 5-0 lead, much to the delight of the loud sell-out crowd. 

 

Leinster attempted to work their way back into the game in what was an open and entertaining opening fifteen minutes, but their attempts were met with staunch Connacht defence. Aki best personified this when he ended a dangerous attack with a textbook breakdown jackal that saw the hosts earn a penalty. 

 

The away team did manage to get on the board near the twenty-minute mark, however, when Sexton kicked a penalty to reduce Connacht’s lead to two points, at 5-3. 

 

And with their tails up, Leinster made it two scores in a profitable few minutes halfway through the first half. Despite an excellent tackle by Finlay Bealham on Josh van der Flier, the eastern province worked the ball to Lowe and the Ireland winger managed to cut through for the try. Sexton added the extras and the away lead 10-5 with fifteen minutes of the opening period remaining. 

 

Leinster’s first-half purple patch continued when Irish international Hugo Keenan found Lowe with a pass and the winger managed to work his way over the line for this second try of the half. Sexton missed the conversion and the visitors lead 15-5 near the half-hour mark. 

 

Connacht weren’t deterred, though, and stuck to the principles, looking to attack. Mack Hansen was key and, after a beautiful kick and field, he made significant yardage before being forced into attack. The home side pressured the resultant line out and were rewarded with a penalty that Carty slotted the bring the score back to 15-7. 

 

Both teams swapped penalties in the minutes before halftime, meaning the score at the interval read, Connacht 11-18 Leinster. 

 

Connacht began the first half in an electric manner, and they began the second period similarly. A searing break from Conor Oliver, with Aki also adding his considerable carrying ability, carved through the Leinster defence and the hosts, on the attack, earned a penalty which Carty nailed to take the score to 14-18 and bring the home team closer to overturning Leinster’s lead. 

 

The away team, however, grew their lead further when Keenan collected a pass from Jamison Gibson Park and touched down. The conversion was wide and Leinster lead 23-14. 

 

The home side’s attitude, despite being behind was exemplary, and they kept their attacking ambitions up, a style that lead to a yellow card for Gibson Park, who tackled Marmion high on a Connacht attack. 

 

Andy Friend’s men didn’t take long to make their man advantage count and, after a line out, Fifita muscled his way over the line from close range. Carty slotted the extras, the scoreline stood at 23-21 in favour with twenty minutes remaining in a pulsating affair. 

 

Connacht, with Porch, Dowling and replacement Abraham Papali’i prominent in the ball carrying stakes, continued to press for the winner but Leinster held firm in defence and when Ross Byrne slotted a late penalty they held on to win 26-21. 

 

Connacht team: 

 

(15-9)

 

15: Tiernan O’Halloran 

14: John Porch 

13: Tom Farrell 

12: Bundee Aki 

11: Mack Hansen

10: Jack Carty 

9: Kieran Marmion 

 

(8-1) 

 

8: Jarrad Butler 

7: Conor Oliver 

6: Cian Prendergast 

5: Leva Fifita 

4: Gavin Thornbury 

3: Finlay Bealham 

2: Dave Heffernan 

1: Matthew Burke 

 

REPLACEMENTS: 

 

16: Dylan Tierney Martin for Heffernan 

17: Tietie Tuimauga for Burke 

18: Jack Aungier for Bealham 

19: Oisin Dowling for Thornbury 

20: Abraham Papali’i for Butler 

21: Caolin Blade for Marmion 

22: Conor Fitzgerald for O’Halloran 

23: Sammy Arnold for Farrell

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