The Leinster team and management might disagree, but this game and the result were heavenly luck for the marketing staff tasked with rescheduling the Aviva Stadium tickets on Good Friday.
A blowout would have pleased Leo Cullen, but it would have been bad for business.
That going ahead is largely down to Connacht’s stubborn refusal to wither in front of a raucous home crowd of 8,129 on the pitch and a yellow card for Irish scrum-half Jamison Gibson-Park as his team looked like pulling away.
That it wasn’t red will be a bone of contention for the western province, who played 14 men for 77 minutes when the teams met in the URC two weeks ago.
Still, keeping the tie alive was their mission, and they did so through superb attacking play, an unwavering work ethic and brave goal-line defence.
Leinster won the game and sometimes they played smashing rugby. They will quietly take a five-point lead at half-time and be confident of getting the job done at Lansdowne Road, knowing they have the greater room for improvement in the week ahead.
“Connacht gave us the full 80 minutes of the big week ahead,” said man of the match Caelan Doris. “A very tough second half, a lot of defense and in a way more physical.
“We treated it as two separate games, we will refocus next week and go ahead with a new plan. The scoreboard starts from zero and we will try again.”
They say more than 25,000 tickets have already been sold ahead of last night’s clash but that sizzling first leg alone, the closeness of the scores and the battle between wingers Mack Hansen and James Lowe should guarantee a few more fly through the door in the coming days.
The larger crowd will do well to enhance the atmosphere created by the home crowd in Galway as they enjoyed a first Champions Cup knockout match and their team responded with a terrific start and John Porch them about took the lead at the same time.
Leinster survived the first wave of attacks but the impressive Leva Fifita attacked James Lowe’s kickdown and after strong carries from Finlay Bealham and Conor Oliver, Aki combined with Jack Carty to flip the Aussie wing.
The outside half missed the kickable conversion, but Connacht kept up their intensity on both sides of the ball and Leinster looked shaken for a time.
It didn’t last. Johnny Sexton roused his side with a penalty and that put the visitors at ease.
Once they relaxed they started enjoying themselves and from Connacht’s point of view there was an ominous lightness in the way the four-time champions executed their first try as Hugo Keenan pulled Aki out of position and put Lowe away .
Sexton converted and the Ireland winger was over again within four minutes. He scored a great one-two with Keenan to burn him up and even when Sexton’s conversion drifted wide it was no consolation to home loyalists.
Hansen gave them reason to regain their votes with a sensational chip and chase, but Tiernan O’Halloran was chased into contact by Josh van der Flier after using the winger’s offload.
Carty and Sexton traded penalties before Keenan dead-kicked the ball to give Connacht one last scoring chance and when Cian Healy coughed up a breakdown penalty, the home captain kicked his penalty to make it 18-11 at the break.
In the dressing room, Leinster would have been the more comfortable side but Connacht threw themselves back into their task after half-time, with Fifita, Cian Prendergast and Aki coming to the fore and when Leinster got too tough Carty chose to close the gap on four , if he could have turned the screw.
It seemed like a missed opportunity, and that feeling was compounded when Jimmy O’Brien attacked Farrell’s kickdown and forced a 5-yard scrum. After a few more scrum penalties and an invalid Lowe result, Keenan extended his team’s lead.
Sexton was wide again with the conversion but Gibson-Park went up to Kieran Marmion and was lucky to walk away with just a yellow. Carty went all out with a line kick a few minutes later and this time they were rewarded when Finlay Fifita pushed in after a second penalty and the captain converted it to 23-21.
Without a No.9, Leinster had to play tight. They escaped a wave of Connacht pressure before the Westerners fended off a James Tracy go at the line and Gibson-Park returned with an even draw.
Missing a chance to extend his side’s lead, Ross Byrne missed the angle to dead kick the ball before a brilliant Aki tackle forced Doris into a rare handling error.
Everything was set for a grand Connacht finish, but Leinster was in no mood for romance. Byrne put his side to a five-point lead and when Sammy Arnold thundered into Josh van der Flier to end the game, a hush fell over the Galway stadium as Dickson signaled half-time in the two-legged tie.
It’s not getting any easier for Connacht, but they’re still alive.
CONNACHT – T O’Halloran (C Fitzgerald ht); J Porch, T Farrell (S Arnold 78), B Aki, M Hansen; J Carty, K Marmion (C Blade 62); M Burke (T Tuimauga 57), D Heffernan (D Tierney-Martin 70), F Bealham (J Aungier 70); G. Thornbury (O. Dowling 53), L. Fifita; C. Prendergast, C. Oliver, J. Butler (A Papali’I 62).
LEINSTER—H. Keenan; J O’Brien, G Ringrose, R Henshaw (C Frawley 74), J Lowe; J Sexton (Capt) (R Byrne 63, L McGrath (J Gibson-Park 51); C Healy (E Byrne 51), D Sheehan (J Tracy 62), T Furlong (M Ala’alatoa 62); R Molony, J Murphy (D Toner 70), C Doris (M Deegan 78), J van der Flier, J Conan.
Ref – K. Dickson (England).
https://www.independent.ie/sport/rugby/champions-cup/connacht-dig-deep-against-leinster-to-keep-champions-cup-tie-alive-for-good-friday-showdown-in-dublin-41535721.html Connacht is cracking down on Leinster to keep the Champions Cup tie alive for Good Friday’s showdown in Dublin