Finally. The long wait is over. Four years had passed since Connacht last recorded a victory over Leinster; three years since they overcome a fellow Irish province; and in between there had been a host of near misses, moral victories, but ulimately, defeats.
On Sunday, however, Connacht finally turned the tables on the current Magners League champions. It was the performance Connacht not only craved, but demanded, particularly after two woeful results against Welsh opposition this season.
Evident in Connacht’s display was an increasing level of tactical nous, confidence, and crucially pride, sufficient to douse a Leinster side that failed to fire.
So stunned were the Leinster camp after this defeat - their second in succession to Irish provinces after Munster held them scoreless in an 18 - 0 loss, that management and players declined to speak. Not so Connacht, whose captain John Muldoon was deservedly elated.
“I am just so proud of the lads. They were brilliant. After our defeat in Cardiff there were a lot of home truths and soul-searching," said Muldoon. “Commitment and effort were the two words used, and the lads never backed out of anything.
“Our defence was bloody awesome, we were down a forward, but it didn't look like it.”
Muldoon believed there were two critical instances in the match. The first was a penalty Connacht won from a five-metre scrum at a time the home outfit were defending their line. Having conceded three in a row in the first half, and with seven pushing against Leinster’s eight following Mike McCarthy’s second yellow card, most would have placed their bets, as Leinster did, on a pushover try. Not so. Connacht won the penalty for CJ Van de Linde’s failure to bind - an almighty psychological boost for the home side, and another storm weathered.
The second on 64 minutes came from Man of the Match Ian Keatley - the young Clontarf outhalf who completely overshadowed his Leinster counterpart Jonathan Sexton throughout the 80 minutes. The Aussie flanker Rocky Elsom had broken through the cover after Rob Kearney had superbly fielded the second of two high balls, and was heading for the try line untouched. Keatley appeared from behind and executed a try-saving tackle around the legs - Elsom lost the ball forward.
At that stage Connacht were clinging onto a 19 - 15 lead, which was subsequently reduced to 19-8 when Felipe Contepomi marked his 100th cap for the province with his sixth kick from six attempts. Two minutes later, and with Connacht still leaking possession from the line-out, Sexton attempted a drop goal. He had both space and time, but drilled it wide and right. What ensued was a brilliant display of pick and go from the Connacht pack - and the longest four and a half minutes in recent Connacht rugby history as the home outfit counted down the clock with confidence before referee George Clancy finally put an end to Leinster’s misery and the start of what Connacht will hope is a turning point in their season.
It was an enthralling encounter from the start, when Luke Fitzgerald seemed destined to open the scoring within minutes but CJ van der Linde's offload was adjudged forward. Then it was Connacht’s turn to express their new-found expansive game when wing Mike Roberts took an inside pass from halfway and cut through the cover before finally being hauled down inside the 22.
Contepomi and Keatley had traded penalties before the Argentinian struck with another two for a 9 - 3 lead - the third coming after McCarthy received his first yellow for a line-out offence - a harsh judgment at a time Leinster were edging the penalty count by 5/4.
Yet Connacht survived for the rest of the half with Keatley adding another two penalties for a deserved 9 - 9 halftime score.
The game exploded within minutes of the restart as Connacht struck for the game’s only try - and what a beauty it was. Andrew Farley had secured the line-out deep inside his own half before Johnny O’Connor, who along with Muldoon led by example, burst through the maul before linking with scrumhalf Frank Murphy. Gavin Duffy and Fionn Carr continued in support and from a ruck Murphy did well to scoop the ball out to Keatley whose hard run found bustling hooker Sean Cronin. His straight burst through the defence was critical before finding a supporting McCarthy who took an inside line to dive under the posts.
It prompted wild celebrations from the home side, and a petulant response from Leinster captain Leo Cullen whose elbow into Keatley’s face resulted in a brawl under the posts. McCarthy’s reply was an attempted headbutt on Rocky Elsom, and both were given their marching orders - with the second yellow for the Connacht lock.
Few at that stage would have imagined Connacht holding out for the remainder of the match a man down. That they did, and with Keatley adding another penalty, was nothing short of heroic.
A long time coming - long may it continue.
CONNACHT: F Carr; L Bibo, G Duffy, K Matthews, M Roberts; I Keatley, F Murphy; B Wilkinson, S Cronin, R Loughney; M McCarthy, A Farley; J Muldoon (capt ), J O'Connor, C Rigney. Replacements: R Morris for Loughney (51mins ), M Swift for Rigney (67mins ), C Muldoon for Cronin, J Hearty for Roberts (both70 mins ), T Nathan for Keatley (77mins ). Sinbinned: McCarthy (30 mins ). Sent off: McCarthy (47mins ).
LEINSTER: R Kearney; S Horgan, L Fitzgerald, F Contepomi, S Keogh; J Sexton, C Keane; S Wright, J Fogarty, CJ van der Linde; L Cullen (capt ), D Toner; R Elsom, S O'Brien, S Keogh. Replacements : C Jowitt for O'Brien (42mins ), C Healy for Wright (47mins ), T Hogan for Toner (67 mins ). Sinbinned: Elsom (47mins ).
Referee : George Clancy (IRFU ).