Connacht’s New Year’s tussle with Leinster marked the first time this season that they lost by more than 12 points. Until Saturday they had not found themselves down and out late in a game at any point this season but the 22-point bonus point victory really didn’t flatter a slick Leinster. They now face a third game in 11 days tonight (Thursday ) away to the Dragons (7:00PM ).
Despite missing some key frontline internationals, Leinster demonstrated their rich strength in depth and, in the backline particularly, outclassed Connacht in an attacking sense. Fergus McFadden and Eoin O’Malley carved open the visitors at key junctures, the finishing ability of Dave Kearney raised eye brows while Paul O’Donoghue easily won the battle of scrum halves.
Up front Connacht competed well but with ball in hand they lacked the cutting edge, Ray Ofisa in particular is badly missed for this; Sean Cronin (rested at the behest of the IRFU player management programme ) was also missed in that sense. While half breaks were made, shoulder runs and off loads were missing and there were far too many turnovers in the tackle.
The positives stem from a number of young academy graduates who looked at ease at Magners League level. Andrew Browne is now well established in the side at six and he put in another fine display here, while 19-year-old Eoin McKeon was drafted in at eight and performed brilliantly. Connacht coach Eric Elwood was keen to highlight as much.
“It’s very positive to have a number of our own young lads shinning, I thought Eoin had a terrific game and I thought Andrew was outstanding, he’s prominent in attack and defence and he’s really stepped up to the plate over the past couple of weeks and I actually paid tribute to him on that.”
Elwood has been keen to emphasize that he will give his young academy players every opportunity to shine, Connacht’s late try on Saturday included first McKeon then a fine break from Dermot Murphy who made an impressive cameo it also involved Browne and was finished off by Eoin Griffin back from injury and in form.
The game was in the balance at half time with the scoreline at 8-3, yet it felt dead in the water and similar to so many games that have gone before. Connacht had owned the ball but lacked incision.
It was 11-3 early in the second half when Leinster attacked with an incisive move through the centre on half way and scored through Dave Kearney two phases later after a blistering attack. That was 18-3 and game over. Two late tries from McFadden and replacement Niall Morris secured the bonus.
Combine that result with the defeat to an understrength Munster at home five days previously when the home side had numerous chances to win in the closing stages and you have a clear picture of a fairly forgettable Christmas period.
It doesn’t stop there, thanks to an unforgiving Magners League scheduling team, they must travel to Newport tonight Thursday (7.00pm Live on RTE ) to play the Dragons who sit just two points above them in the table. An impossible assignment that left Elwood fuming this week, asking why the league’s smallest squad face what will be a third game in just eleven days. He still has hope however.
“Ourselves and the Dragons are pretty close as regards resources, we have been going out to win every game this year in particular, we’ve changed our focus. We believe we have a game that is capable of winning there, we won’t fear it but we know it’s going to be a tough challenge because they’ll want pay back from the early season loss.”
Connacht beat the Dragons with a bonus point back in September to launch their campaign with a bang and have a good record at home to Thursday’s opponents, yet they have won just twice in Newport during the Magners League era and continue to carry a number of key injuries.
Ray Ofisa is close to returning but might not see action until the Prato home game in the Challenge Cup in two weeks time, John Muldoon is on the long term list but Gavin Duffy is close to a return either this week or next. Meanwhile the return of Mike McComish will provide some back row cover for a game where Connacht start as heavy outsiders.