Connacht’s improving confidence and form will face a different test on New Year’s Day when they travel to the RDS and Leo Cullen’s Leinster(3.15pm ).
Although away from home and up against a team of world class players, Connacht have nothing to lose and everything to gain if they can reproduce their inspirational form against Ulster. That is the challenge now for Kieran Keane’s squad who have not enjoyed much success at the Ballsbridge venue.
“Totally different opposition, different venue, and we won’t have the luxury of playing at home, but it’s onwards and upwards hopefully,” Keane says.
Connacht are now level on points with Cardiff for fourth place after that scintillating win over Ulster - and also courtesy of their try bonus points, but after three-days’ break for the Christmas, Keane and the squad were “back to the drawing board” in their efforts to nail another interprovincial victory against a Leinster side that has only lost twice this season. In action on Tuesday evening when they overcame Munster by 34-24, they may have had less preparation for this fixture, but the talent at Leo Cullen’s disposal is immense.
Connacht’s Eoghan Masterson says the value of home advantage is invaluable.
“You can’t emphasize enough the Sportsground crowd, it likes nowhere else, so we are under no illusions against Leinster and how big a test it will be. It is a fixture which we have had little success in the past, they have a big strong squad and great strength in depth, but we are looking forward to it.”
Connacht will be looking to build on that victory over Ulster - a record breaker with the most points Connacht had every scored, not only against Ulster, but any province, while equalling a record margin of victory against Leinster in 2012. It was produced by a speed and intensity that was just too much for Ulster on the night, and it blew them off the park. It started within the first minute, and was incessant until Connacht fullback Tiernan O’Halloran chased down Johnny McPhillips the length of the entire pitch to fell the Ulster replacement on the line.
Connacht had outstanding displays all over the pitch, epitomised by locks Quinn Roux and Ultan Dillane, Jack Carty’s increasing maturity in controlling the game, O’Halloran’s outlandish chase, and a front row that demolished their counterparts. It left Ulster with “their tail between their legs”; and Connacht in full festive mood heading into a three-day Christmas break before facing more daunting opposition at the RDS on New Year’s Day.
“A special one, bloody wonderful, personally extremely proud”, said a satisfied Kieran Keane. “A lot of hard work and difficult times and you can’t be anything but proud of a performance like that, but I think it is just reward for the boys, for the application and the attitude they displayed, a really good day for us and it hasn’t always been like that.
While Keane might still “bristle” about comments made in the wake of some previous displays, this latest performance was an “emphatic answer” and “defining”.”I love my players and I love my team, and we are working every day trying to do things right, so yeah, we have been working really hard, and we got the fruits of our labour today - a neat Christmas present for the boys and myself.”
“Defining as in I suspect now we will be taken seriously as a club, perhaps as an organisation, and that will help us in terms of recruitment, retention, and a whole other side to the business. I think we have turned a little corner and I’m pretty happy about it.”
Connacht had done their home work, targeted the maul, and it set thetone for the evening.Ulster, with the wind advantage in the first half, had no chance to take advantage when Kieran Keane’s side grabbed the opening try within three minutes. A poor up and under from Jacob Stockdale did not help, Connacht regaining possession, and from an ensuing penalty to touch, the Connacht pack drove with pace and power with flanker Eoghan Masterson touching down. Although outhalf Jack Carty failed to nail the conversion, the Connacht Clan was already on its feet in the stands. More followed as Connacht again capitalised on the counter attack, led by fullback Tiernan O’Halloran.
And with Matt Healy and Kieran Marmionheading for the gaps, Bundee Aki slipped out of Stockdale’s jersey pull to land the second after eight minutes. Ulster, clearly below par with sloppy passing and poor out of hand kicking, was a “bit of a mystery” for Les Kiss, but it continued, although briefly interrupted by a 23rd minute John Cooney penalty when Shane Delahunt was pinged for offside at the breakdown.
There minutes later and a superb restart from Matt Healy was finished by Tiernan O’Halloran who forced his way through Andrew Trimble’s tackle on the line. Connacht’s defence was as effective as its attack, and although Ulster went through the phases, the dual presence of Healy and Tom Farrell forced the normally secure Darren Cave to lose possession and momentum.
The only positive was a second penalty for Cooney after Aki was caught offside, but with a mounting penalty count in favour of the home side and another three-pointer from Jack Carty, Ulster found themselves under the cosh again. It came courtesy of the maul which Connacht had targeted earlier in the week, and it “paid massive dividends”, including a yellow card for loose head Andrew Warwick as Keane’s side stretched the lead to 23-6 after the break.
A second binning was issued to Louis Ludik for a deliberate knock-on,and Connacht ‘s pack marched over the line with Ultan Dllane touching down for the fourth try after 55 minutes. Openside Jarrad Butler finished off out wide for number five after Carty had once again provided the platform with his crossfield kick to Niyi Adeolokun. Ulster enjoyed a brief respite when Craig Kilroy ran a direct line from a scrum after minutes earlier Ludik was denied when losing theball over the line, but Connacht fans broke into Christmas carols on the terraces as Dillane rounded off an unforgettable night with another end to end score after Eoin Griffin ‘s intercept. An Ulster try at the death was of little consolation for Les Kiss as they return to Ravennhill to face Munster.
Scoring sequence: 3m Masterson try 5-0; 8m Aki try, Carty con 12-0;23m Cooney pen 12-3; 26m O’Halloran try 17-3; 30m Cooney pen 17-6; 39m Carty pen 20-6; HT 20-6; 47m Carty pen 23-6; 55m Dillane try, Carty con30-6; 59m Butler try, Carty con 37-6; 64m Gilroy try 37-11; 76m Dillane try, Carty con 44-1; 79m R Lyttle try 44-16
Connacht: T O’Halloran, N Adeolokun, B Aki, T Farrell, M Healy, J Carty, K Marmion, D Coulson, S Delahunt, F Bealham, U Dillane, Q Roux,E Masterson, J Butler, J Muldoon. Replacements, T McCartney for Delahunt, P McCabe for Coulson and C Carey for Bealham (55 ), J Cannon for Roux(56 ), N Dawai for Butler andJ Mitchell for Marmion (60 ), E Griffin for Aki and F Leader for Adeolokun (63 ), T McCartney, P McCabe, C Carey, J Cannon, N Dawai, J Mitchell, E Griffin, D Leader.
Ulster: J Stockdale, C Gilroy, L Ludik, D Cave, A Trimble, P Nelson, JCooney, A Warwick, J Andrew, W Herbst, I Henderson (cpt ), R Diack, CRoss, S Reidy, N Timoney. Replacements, G Jones for Reidy (35 ), A McBurney for Andrew (45 ), R Kane for Herbst (47 ), S Van der Merwe for Ross (48 ), P Marshall forCooney and J McPHillips for Nelson (61 ), R Lyttle for Trimble and M Rea for Diack (64 ).Referee: M Adamson (SRU ).