Question: Why are South African teams joining the Championship?

Answer: Since the tournament’s beginnings in 2001 as the Celtic League, the tournament has always thrived as a cross-border competition and expanding the Championship is in keeping with its DNA.

By bringing in the Toyota Cheetahs and the Southern Kings and expanding into new territories, the Championship will attract more interest from broadcasters and sponsors while ensuring that we have elite level teams making the Guinness PRO14 even more competitive on the field. This agreement will benefit all of the teams who compete in the Guinness PRO14 and allow those clubs eligible for European competition to be better resourced to thrive at that level.

Q: Why can’t it just be a league?

A: A home and away league system with 14 teams would be impossible to fit into the allocated playing weekends in a season. Across European rugby and soccer none of the major cross-border tournaments (Champions Cup, Champions League) use a league system, rather, they opt for pool and knock-out stage formats which bears many similarities to the new conference system. In this case, the conference system allows the tournament to expand without the need to add extra games into an already congested international calendar.

Q: How will this work and what changes will occur to the Championship format?

A: The Guinness PRO14 will adopt a two-conference model which will allows for the new clubs to be added into the Championship without needing to add extra rounds in 2017/18.

  • Each conference will contain 7 teams with an equal split of teams from each union
  • Every team plays 21 regular season games
  • Every team to play each other at least once
  • All Home & Away derby fixtures will remain in place
  • Italian, Scottish and South African teams will play an additional derby fixture to even out the schedule (e.g. Edinburgh will play Glasgow Warriors three times)
  • The Guinness PRO14 Final Series will now include Quarter-Finals allowing six clubs to reach the knock-out stages
  • The top 3 clubs from each conference will qualify for the Champions Cup while the 4th placed team with the highest points total will claim the final Champions Cup place

South African clubs will not be eligible to qualify for EPCR tournaments at present

Q: How many matches will my team play?

A: The regular season will consist of 21 Rounds which is one game less than the previous format. These Rounds will be made up from a combination of:

  • 12 Home & Away games in your team’s conference
  • 7 Home OR Away games against each team from the other conference
  • An additional 2 Derby Round games to ensure all Derby fixtures are played home & away (this means Scottish, Italian, South African clubs play three Derbies)
  • Teams will alternate between 10 or 11 home games each season

Q: Will my team still play all of their usual Derby games?

A: Yes. Extra Derby rounds have been added to the season to ensure the games that matter most to our fans are protected.

Both Ireland and Wales will see each of their four teams complete full home and away fixtures.

In Italy, Scotland and South Africa each of their two teams will play three Derby fixtures.
(The home venue for the third fixture will alternate each season is the same fashion as fixtures in the Six Nations.)

Irish and Welsh teams

  • The fixtures across each Conference will account for four of your team’s six Derby fixtures
    (2 Home & Away in Conference, 2 Home OR Away against the other Conference)
  • The two outstanding Derby fixtures will be accounted for in the extra rounds
  • For Connacht, this involves:
    1. Two in Conference Derby fixtures (1 Home & 1 Away)
    2. One Derby game against each of the Irish teams in the other Conference (these may be home or away)
    3. Two outstanding fixtures to ensure we have played each Irish team twice

Italian, Scottish and South African teams

  • The fixtures across both Conferences will account for one of your team’s three Derby games
  • The two outstanding Derby fixtures will be accounted for in the extra rounds
  • The team who hosts the third Derby game will alternate each season

Q: Will my team play extra away games?

A: No, each team will play either less or the same amount of away games as they did in the old league format depending on how they are drawn against teams from their opposing conference.

Q: How are Home OR Away fixtures against the other Conference decided?

A: The number of away games played by a team against opponents from the other Conference will switch each season. Teams will play either 10 or 11 away games per season, so for example, if Scarlets play 11 away games in 2017/18 then the goal when putting together the fixture list in 2018/19 will be to ensure they play 10 away games.

The initial balance of away fixtures was predicated on a number of factors including: stadium availability; club preference; player welfare and the accommodation of mini-tours involving fixtures with South African clubs.

In the case of the extra derby game for the Italian, Scottish & South African teams, the club which hosts two of the three fixtures in 2017/18 will then be away from home in two of the three derby fixtures in 2018/19 and so on.

Q: How were the Conferences decided?

A: The Conferences need to fulfil two criteria. First, there must be an equal number of teams from each union in both conferences. Secondly, there must be a competitive balance based upon the previous season’s final placings that feed into union rankings.

To create an equal number of teams per union each conference will contain:

  • 2 Irish teams; 2 Welsh; 1 Italian; 1 Scottish, 1 South African

Additionally, for the entrance of the South African teams their Super Rugby final placings were used for ranking. The Cheetahs are ranked 1st having finished 2nd in the African 1 Conference.

Every season the conferences will be filled in the following order:

Conference A Rank Conference B Rank
Ireland 1 Wales 1
Ireland 4 Wales 4
Wales 2 Ireland 2
Wales 3 Ireland 3
Scotland 1 Scotland 2
Italy 2 Italy 1
South Africa 1 South Africa 2

Each union will rank their teams based upon their points totals from the previous season’s Championship table.

For example, in 2016/17, the four Welsh teams finished with the following points totals:

Team Points Rank
Scarlets 77 1
Ospreys 69 2
Cardiff Blues 53 3
Dragons 44 4

Q: Does this mean that the Conferences will change from year to year?

A: Yes. The number of teams by union will remain constant in each conference, but in order to ensure a competitive balance the teams will then be distributed evenly based upon their union ranking from the season before.

Final placings are also determined by the order in which teams progress through the Guinness PRO14 Final Series. For example, in 2016/17 Scarlets finished 3rd in the table, but ended up as Championship winners so their ranking is 1st  (see above).

Q: How will the Guinness PRO14 Final Series work?

A: After all 21 regular rounds have been completed the top 3 teams from each conference will qualify for the Final Series. Both 1st placed teams will secure home Semi-Finals while the 2nd and 3rd placed teams will face each other in a Quarter-Final Stage.

Q: What are the benefits of the new format?

A: This new chapter will be the most exciting one yet in the history of the Championship. The expansion of the Guinness PRO14 Final Series will mean even greater competitiveness to every single game in the Championship. This means that six of the 14 teams will have something to fight for once the regular season is over and this will make the tournament more unpredictable than ever before.

The new format also ensures that our Derby matches, which are integral to the tribal attraction of the Championship, are protected. In short, there are more matches, more opportunities and more to play for across the same number of weekends (24: 21 regular rounds; 3 knock-out rounds).

The addition of the Toyota Cheetahs and Southern Kings makes the Guinness PRO14 a truly global rugby tournament by expanding the reach for competing teams and paving the way to bring professional club rugby to new territories around the world.

Celtic Rugby and the South African Rugby Union have today confirmed that the Toyota Cheetahs and the Southern Kings will join an expanded Guinness PRO14 tournament in time for the upcoming 2017/18 season.

A long-term strategic agreement has been signed by both parties which will allow the participation of two South African franchises in the renamed Guinness PRO14 Championship.

The agreement means that the Championship will take place across the northern and southern hemispheres and marks the first phase of expansion as the Guinness PRO14 becomes a truly global tournament.

This move will contribute to the drive for ever higher standards that we demand across the tournament and provide greater resources to our clubs who will compete in the most testing environment the Championship has ever created.

We can also reassure supporters across the Championship that all current home and away Derby games have been protected – these fixtures are sacrosanct to the tournament and those tribal rivalries are just one element of what makes the Guinness PRO14 so special.

With a new format, new teams and new audiences the Guinness PRO14 – which leads World Rugby statistics for Positive Play – will hit even greater heights in 2017/18.

NEW FORMAT

The addition of the Toyota Cheetahs and the Southern Kings will require the Championship to introduce a new Conference format as a league format is not suited to a 14-team cross-border tournament.

The Guinness PRO14 will adopt a two-conference model which will allows for the new clubs to be added into the Championship without need to add extra rounds in 2017/18.

Conference A

  • Munster (IRFU)
  • Ospreys (WRU)
  • Glasgow Warriors (SRU)
  • Cardiff Blues (WRU)
  • Connacht (IRFU)
  • Zebre Rugby Club (FIR)
  • Toyota Cheetahs (SA Rugby)

Conference B

  • Scarlets (WRU)
  • Leinster (IRFU)
  • Ulster (IRFU)
  • Edinburgh (SRU)
  • Benetton Rugby (FIR)
  • Dragons (WRU)
  • Southern Kings (SA Rugby)

*** *** *** *** ***

  • Each conference will contain 7 teams with an equal split of teams from each union
  • Every team plays 21 regular season games
  • Every team to play each other at least once
  • All Home & Away Derby fixtures will remain in place
  • Italian, Scottish and South African teams will play an additional Derby fixture to even out the schedule (e.g. Edinburgh will play Glasgow Warriors three times)
  • The Guinness PRO14 Final Series will now include Quarter-Finals allowing six clubs to reach the knock-out stages (teams 1-3 from each Conference)
  • The top 3 clubs from each conference will qualify for the Champions Cup while the team with the highest points total outside of those six teams across both conferences will claim the final Champions Cup place

South African clubs will not be eligible to qualify for EPCR tournaments at present

The Conferences need to fulfil two criteria. First, there must be an equal number of teams from each union in both conferences. Secondly, there must be a competitive balance based upon the previous season’s final placings that feed into union rankings.

To create an equal number of teams per union each conference will contain:

  • 2 Irish teams; 2 Welsh; 1 Italian; 1 Scottish, 1 South African

Additionally, for the entrance of the South African teams their Super Rugby final placings were used for ranking.

Please note: To maintain competitive balance the Conferences will be reset each season based upon rankings from the previous campaign.

FIXTURES

The regular season will consist of 21 Rounds, which is one game less than the previous format. These Rounds will be made up from a combination of:

  • 12 Home & Away games in your team’s conference
  • 7 Home OR Away games against each team from the other conference
  • An additional 2 Rounds to ensure all derby fixtures are played home & away (this means Scottish, Italian, South African clubs play three derbies)

The fixture list has been drafted for all 21 rounds, Rounds 1-13 will be confirmed next week (commencing August 7) after the Championship’s broadcast partners have made their selections for live television broadcasts and the clubs have been consulted.

REACTION

Martin Anayi, CEO of the Guinness PRO14, welcomed both clubs to the Championship and described it as an historic chapter for the tournament as it begins the first phase of expansion.

“The arrival of the Toyota Cheetahs and the Southern Kings marks a bold and exciting new chapter for the Guinness PRO14 as a global rugby Championship,” Anayi said. “As a country, South Africa is a rugby powerhouse of over 55 million people. These teams already operate to the high standards demanded by Super Rugby and they will add to the quality of our tournament.

“Our Unions and World Rugby are committed to broadening the game and this move is evidence of our ambition to lead the way in growing the club game beyond our own borders, which in turn will unlock the true potential of this tournament. Expansion is in the DNA of the Championship and ever since the Celtic League kicked off in 2001 Cross Border competition has thrived.

“Being based across some of the most renowned hotbeds of rugby, the Championship has always been rife with international talent and last season we saw 270 internationals appear in the Guinness PRO12. Since then another 25 made their Test debuts in June while 27 of our players were on duty with the British & Irish Lions in New Zealand.

“This is a natural evolution for the Championship and not only will the calibre of the Toyota Cheetahs and the Southern Kings grow audiences, interest and the commercial base for the tournament and our clubs, it is a move that also lays the foundations for years to come. The appeal of professional club rugby has never been greater and we aim to be at the forefront of the game’s growth around the world,” Anayi said.

“These are bold steps but the encouragement from our shareholder unions, our sponsors, our broadcasters and World Rugby – has shown that there is an appetite for innovation, fresh stories and new rivalries. The new tournament structure will also provide more teams with the opportunity to reach the Guinness PRO14 Final Series and that is fantastic news for our players, coaches and fans,” Anayi said.

“To achieve this within three months is an astonishing achievement by everyone involved. I would like to thank Jurie Roux, CEO of SA Rugby, and his colleagues in South Africa for their hard work and vision. For everyone involved this is a golden opportunity to do something unique within the game of rugby and it is fantastic that they share the same ambitions as our unions and teams.

“Last season’s figures showed that we are the home of Positive Play and now the Guinness PRO14 will be one of the most unique and diverse rugby tournaments in the world.”

Jurie Roux, CEO of SA Rugby, said the decision to accept an invitation to play in the northern hemisphere competition was a ground-breaking move that added a whole new dimension to the South African season.

“This development is as exciting as the launch of Super Rugby itself back in 1996,” said Roux. “It marks the start of a new adventure for rugby in South Africa with a number of exciting opportunities. It will not be without its challenges in aligning with a competition in a different part of the calendar and in very different playing conditions; but it is also a fantastic opportunity for South African rugby to widen our rugby horizons.

“This time next year South African provincial teams will be competing in 11 countries on five continents. We believe the Toyota Cheetahs’ and Kings’ participation will be good for the competition and good for the teams.”

Harold Verster, CEO of the Toyota Cheetahs, believes that both clubs will be viewed as “trail blazers” as they make their preparations to compete in the Guinness PRO14.

“There will be a steep learning curve for our coaches and players but we’re in it to win it. This is a whole new ball game for rugby in South Africa and we’re proud to be trail blazers. There is a lot of excitement around the union about the opportunity and we’re already looking forward to kick off,” Verster said.

“We’re excited about taking the Toyota Cheetahs’ famous brand of all-out attacking rugby to Europe and bringing top European clubs to South Africa. The Free State is one of the great nurseries of rugby in South Africa and this is an exciting prospect for our young players – to test themselves against top players from the northern hemisphere.”

Andre Rademan, president of the Eastern Province Rugby Union, said: “We have been through tough times on and off the field over recent years but we now have the chance to reclaim our status as one of the powerhouses of South African rugby.

“The Southern Kings have been on an upward playing curve this season and there is much to be excited about. This team represents the heartlands of black rugby in South Africa – a tradition stretching back to the very establishment of the game in this country – and we will bring a unique passion and flavour to the tournament.”

Bill Beaumont, World Rugby, Chairman said: “Following consideration of PRO14’s submission, including strategic goals and evaluation of the global rugby benefits, the World Rugby EXCO was unanimous in approving expansion.

“This approval was granted under the proviso that key strategic conditions will be met. This includes the implementation of a detailed player welfare plan, which we are delighted PRO14 are fully committed to. We look forward to the beginning of an exciting new chapter in the competition’s history.”

TRAVEL AND PLAYER WELFARE

In order to provide travelling teams to South Africa with the best possible preparation, games will be fixed for Saturdays. This will allow visiting teams to have a seven-day turnaround leading into these fixtures including five ‘clean days’ that do not involve any travel.

Flights between Europe and South Africa are overnight which will allow players to rest during the journey while training facilities and accommodation venues are up to the standards expected in Super Rugby.

For teams who are scheduled to play twice in South Africa, the aim will be for them to play back-to-back games on a ‘mini-tour’ in one round trip. Where the fixture list prevents this, games in South Africa for those clubs will be spread across a reasonable period of time.

Martin Anayi, CEO of the Guinness PRO14, added: “Our clubs, players and coaches are already excited about the opportunity to play in South Africa in front of new crowds, new stadiums and take on these exciting new tests.

“From a logistical point of view, we know that travelling long distance will be nothing unusual to the South African sides, and indeed our core international players, but it is a new departure for our clubs. As such we have been in a dialogue with performance directors across all participating unions to ensure that player welfare is not compromised.

“We will work closely with travel partners to ensure that players are provided the best possible times and conditions when flying to and from South Africa to make sure their preparation is unaffected.

“In addition, we will welcome members of SA Rugby’s Premier Panel of full-time referees who will join our stable of elite officials. The 2017/18 season will bring the Guinness PRO14 to new destinations, create more competition and present more vibrancy than ever before on a journey we believe is only just beginning.”

Celtic Rugby issued the below statement this afternoon regarding the possible expansion of the competition.

Celtic Rugby can confirm that advanced & positive discussions are taking place with the South African Rugby Union regarding the introduction of 2 teams into an expanded Guinness PRO12 Championship.

Given the proximity of the 2017/18 season start, a final decision on this potential expansion will be confirmed as soon as practical.

Incoming Head Coach Kieran Keane spent last week in Connacht meeting the squad and the new-look coaching and management team.

Keane will join the province following the completion of the Super Rugby season and the Chiefs Assistant Coach is eager to play his part in an exciting new era at the province.

Check out the first of our special series of interviews with the new Head Coach that we will be providing for our supporters in the coming weeks.

“The thing that came across that I really enjoyed was the aspiration that they had, that they talked about for Connacht,” said Keane.

“We want to get some very good performances that people can be proud of on the park. They (the fans) flood through the gates because it’s a champion team to watch.”

Tick Tock . . .

5pm this evening (Friday, July 7) is the deadline to purchase a Season Ticket if you wish to be included in our first delivery of Season Ticket cards next month. If you purchase before the deadline, you will have your card in time for the pre-season friendly against Bristol at the Sportsground – which is included in the Season Ticket offer.

Sign-up now to be included in the first delivery here!

Key changes to the qualification format for the Champions Cup will be introduced by EPCR next season in a move which will create a more streamlined pathway to participation in Europe’s top flight.

At the conclusion of 2017/18, the seven highest-ranked clubs from the Guinness PRO12 will qualify for the following season’s Champions Cup regardless of their country of origin. This will replace the current format which requires that at least one club from each of Ireland, Italy, Scotland and Wales is included in the seven qualifiers.

The qualification process for the Aviva Premiership and the TOP 14 which sees the six highest-ranked clubs secure places in the Champions Cup will remain.

There will also be an added incentive for Challenge Cup clubs with the tournament winner automatically taking the 20th spot in the Champions Cup. If the Challenge Cup winner is already qualified, then the losing finalist will take its place.

“These changes are designed to strengthen both the Champions Cup and the Challenge Cup,” said EPCR Director General, Vincent Gaillard.

“The new qualification format will contribute further to the advances that we have made in attendances, TV audiences and expansion to new territories as we continue to create outstanding rugby experiences for participating clubs, players, sponsors, broadcasters and importantly, our fans.”

PRO12 Rugby Chief Executive, Martin Anayi, welcomed the changes. “Everyone has seen the positive impact that meritocracy has had on the Guinness PRO12 since it was introduced in the 2014/15 season. Competition has never been greater among our clubs and these latest changes will deliver true meritocracy to our Championship.

“In this past season, we have been greatly encouraged by the performances of our teams in the Champions Cup and the Challenge Cup and this development will prime them to make a greater impact in the future.”

Guinness PRO12

Connacht 8-30 Scarlets

Connacht fell to a disappointing defeat to in-form Scarlets at the Sportsground with the visiting Welsh side producing an excellent performance.

It was a tough night for Connacht with most of the damage done in the first half as the province trailed 22-3 at the break. Craig Ronaldson touched down in the second half to provide a glimmer of hope but Scarlets finished strongly with a late try putting a gloss on the scoreline.

Despite a promising start for Connacht with ball in hand as they played with the benefit of the elements, Scarlets hit the front on four minutes after their first visit into the Connacht 22.

Full-back Johnny McNicholl was released down the left flank and he cut inside opposite number Tiernan O’Halloran to touch down under the posts with Rhys Patchell adding the extras.

Connacht responded well and Marnitz Boshoff slotted over a penalty from the right of the posts on 10 minutes after a decent period of pressure.

Scarlets looked extremely dangerous with ball in hand and Steff Evans crossed in the left corner three minutes later after a brilliant backline move off a scrum with McNicholl making the initial break.

Again, Connacht looked to hit back immediately but Boschoff pulled his penalty wide after a high tackle on the out-half.

All of the Scarlets offloads were sticking and they touched down again through Evans on 26 minutes in the left corner. McNicholl provided the telling pass just before he was bundled into touch with everything going the visitors’ way as they led 17-3.

The fourth Scarlets try arrived on the half-hour with the Welsh side rampant as Steff Evans released Liam Williams for their fourth try for a 22-3 half-time lead.

After some harsh words in the dressing room at the interval, Connacht came out for the second half desperate to get back in the game.

The first five minutes of the half were spent in Scarlets territory but a scrum penalty went against the hosts and a huge Patchell penalty relieved the pressure.

Connacht were really digging in and were finally rewarded just before the hour as a Ronaldson try brought the hosts back in contention.

The pack set up the opportunity as they disrupted a Scarlets scrum with Jake Heenan making good ground before Dave Heffernan was stopped just short.

Connacht showed great patience to eventually work the ball wide to the left with O’Halloran feeding Tom Farrell with a clever as the centre released Craig Ronaldson to cross in the left corner.

The try was thoroughly deserved and Boshoff was unlucky to see his conversion come back off the post as Connacht now trailed 22-8.

Needing two converted tries in the final 20 minutes, a draw was till within the hosts’ reach but it became a bridge too far when Patchell landed his first penalty on 66 minutes to move Scarlets 25-8 in front.

A superb ankle-tap by Cian Kelleher on Patchell nearly led to a second Connacht try moments later but a handling error saw the opportunity go abegging.

Scarlets finished with a flourish as DTH van der Merve crossed in the right corner late on to cap off an impressive performance.

A presentation was made at full-time for the squad members who will be departing at the end of the season with full details of the departures here.

The final standings will be confirmed following the last PRO12 game of the season next Saturday as Connacht travel to Thomond Park to face Munster (5.15pm).

Connacht: T O’Halloran (D Poolman, 72); D Leader, T Farrell, E Griffin (C Ronaldson, 27), C Kelleher; M Boshoff, C Blade (J Cooney, 62); F Bealham (JP Cooney, 68), D Heffernan (S Delahunt, 68), D Robertson-McCoy (D Buckley h-t); J Cannon (Q Roux, 46), A Browne; S O’Brien, J Heenan, E Masterson (J Muldoon, 46).

Connacht host Scarlets in their final Guinness PRO12 home game of the season at the Sportsground on Saturday night with Champions Cup qualification within reach (7.35pm).

Don’t miss your final chance to see Connacht at the Sportsground in the PRO12 this season, get your match ticket for Saturday night here

With a place in the top eight secured, the focus now is on building momentum ahead of the play-off semi-final next month away to either French or English opposition.

In-form Scarlets will provide a formidable challenge but Connacht have lost just twice in Galway since mid-September with the home crowd roaring the Westerners to nine wins in their last 11 home games.

Last time out, Connacht played some scintillating rugby in a thrilling encounter against Leinster but the visitors were clinical on the night and took every chance that came their way to record a 37-24 victory.

Following the Scarlets clash, Connacht are on the road to Thomond Park for the final PRO12 game of the season on Saturday, May 6 (5.15pm).

We have a once in a lifetime prize to give away – a one-off, specially embroidered, signed Connacht jersey to mark captain John Muldoon’s 300th Connacht appearance. Click here for more details.

The 20th place in the Champions Cup will be decided by a series of play-off matches that will include the following clubs:

  • The seventh-ranked club from the Premiership, or the winner of the Challenge Cup if from the Premiership and not already qualified for the Champions Cup.
  • The seventh-ranked club from the TOP 14, or the winner of the Challenge Cup if from the TOP 14 and not already qualified for the Champions Cup.
  • The clubs that finish 7th and 8th in the Guinness PRO12.

Play-Off Draw

19/20/21 May

Play-off 1: Aviva Premiership (seventh-ranked club) v Guinness PRO12 (Team that finish 8th – Cardiff Blues or Connacht)

Play-off 2: TOP 14 (seventh-ranked club) v Guinness PRO12 (Team that finish 7th – Cardiff Blues or Connacht)

The Premiership and TOP 14 clubs will have home advantage.

26/27/28 May

Play-off Final: winner Play-off 1 v winner Play-off 2 (The winner of Play-off 1 will have home advantage).

The winner of the Play-off final will take the 20th place in the 2017/18 Champions Cup.

Connacht’s possible play-off semi-final opponents

France: Lyon Olympique, Stade Francais, Pau, Castres, Bordeaux-Begles, Brive, Toulouse, Racing 92, Toulon.

England: Harlequins, Gloucester, Northampton, Newcastle, Bath.

Connacht’s semi-final opponents will either be decided following the completion of the PRO12, Top14 and Premiership on Saturday, May 6, or after the European Challenge Cup final between Stade Francais and Gloucester on Friday, May 12.

 

See our latest squad update here and the match preview for Connacht v Scarlets here.

Connacht 24-37 Leinster

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.

GUARANTEE YOUR SPOT FOR THE 2017/18 SEASON BEFORE PRICES RISE.

An incredible break and offload from O’Halloran set up Connacht’s second try after the interval with Carty eventually floating a pass out to Dave Heffernan on the left wing and the hooker had the wheels to cross to move Connacht into a 24-20 lead with half an hour remaining.

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.

There is still time to get your Early Bird Season Tickets for the 2017/18 season with big savings to be made, book your spot for next season here.

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)

Connacht captain John Muldoon will play his 300th game for the province when he lines out against Leinster at a sold-out Sportsground tomorrow night.

The 34-year-old, who has started 23 games already this season, leads the team featuring four personnel changes from last weekend.

Jack Carty is handed the reins at out-half for the visit of the Guinness PRO12 table toppers while Craig Ronaldson is recalled to start in the centre with Bundee Aki.

Dave Heffernan and Ireland international Finlay Bealham are named in the front row in an otherwise unchanged forward pack.

Commenting on the upcoming game, head coach Pat Lam said:

“It’s great to be back at the Sportsground in front of our home support after a number of weeks on the road. Leinster are flying high at the top of the PRO12 table as well as in Europe and we know we are coming up against a tough side stacked with quality players. But that just adds to the excitement for us as a team. We are really looking forward to this game and the chance to put in a huge performance for ourselves, for our supporters and for John Muldoon on a special day for him.”

Connacht team to face Leinster

Saturday, April 15th, kick off 7.35pm, the Sportsground

(Connacht caps in brackets)

15         Tiernan O’Halloran (124)
14         Niyi Adeolokun (55)
13         Bundee Aki (58)
12         Craig Ronaldson (64)
11         Danie Poolman (82)
10         Jack Carty (78)
9           Kieran Marmion (118)

1           Denis Buckley (115)
2           Dave Heffernan (81)
3           Finlay Bealham (79)
4           Quinn Roux (54)
5           Andrew Browne (152)
6           Eoin McKeon (104)
7           Jake Heenan (51)
8           John Muldoon (299) (captain)

Replacements:

16       Shane Delahunt (25)
17       JP Cooney (47
18       Dominic Robertson-McCoy (8)
19       Sean O’Brien (36)
20       Naulia Dawai (10)
21       Caolin Blade (42)
22       Steve Crosbie (2)
23       Eoin Griffin (76)

 

Injured/unavailable: Tom McCartney, Ronan Loughney, Conor Carey, Ultan Dillane, Nepia Fox-Matamua, Peter Robb, Stacey Ili, Matt Healy, Cian Kelleher.

CONNACHT RUGBY v LEINSTER RUGBY
Saturday 15th April
At the Sportsground, 7.35pm.
Sold Out; Live on TG4

Referee: Ian Davies (WRU, 62nd competition game)
Assistant Referees: Wayne Davies (WRU), Joy Neville (IRFU)
Citing Commissioner: Eugene Ryan (IRFU)
TMO: Neil Paterson (SRU)

 

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