Leinster 56-20 Connacht

The stage was set but Leinster had no intention of delivering any Good Friday derby drama.

Instead, the four-time European champions decided their best course of action was to kill this tie off before Connacht had a chance to get their bearings.

The two-legged round-of-16, for the first time in the Heineken Champions Cup, began last Friday night in Galway with Leinster getting out of the west with a 26-21 advantage and a sense that better was to follow.

Connacht, meanwhile, had fed off their home crowd and took advantage of a yellow card, to stay in the hunt in their first ever appearance in the knock-out stage of the tournament.

Andy Friend's side needed to produce something they hadn’t managed so far this season, while Leinster, who started with 12 regular Ireland players in their team could afford to play to par.

They did that, and more, and despite an early Connacht spell of pressure, and their progression to a quarter-final, was never really in doubt.

Connacht’s indiscipline didn’t help and Leinster, at various stages playing against 14 or 13 players due to sin-binnings and scrum regulations, ran in eight tries with man of the match James Lowe helping himself to four, which added up to an 82-41 aggregate score.

A crowd of 32,604 turned up on a beautiful, sunny evening in Dublin 4 and there were just 18 seconds on the clock when Luke Pearce awarded the visitors a penalty with Cian Prendergast sharpest at a breakdown under the Leinster posts.

Jack Carty tapped over and buoyed by the early score, Connacht kept the pressure up and forced another two penalties off the home defence.

Leinster couldn't get their hands on the ball but Carty missed an easy kick to give Friend’s side what would have been the aggregate lead shortly after.

That let-off allowed Leinster to regroup and find their trademark attacking rhythm.

Johnny Sexton was conducting the orchestra with his usual aplomb and when Lowe came off his wing it created an extra man out wide, which happened to be lock Josh Murphy.

He made yards before slipping the ball inside for Lowe who fed Jamison Gibson-Park for a run-in.

The hosts remained in control with a tight defensive line never giving an inch against the hard-running Bundee Aki and Tom Farrell, and the lively Mack Hansen.

Robbie Henshaw brushed off a couple of watery tackles close to the line to get Leinster’s second with just 18 minutes gone.

Another spell of close-range pressure led to Tadhg Furlong barging over ten minutes later and Connacht’s frustration was beginning to show as the tie ebbed away before their eyes.

Aki was lucky to get away with just a yellow card for a late, high hit on Sexton, with the referee reasoning that it was "low danger, no mitigation, yellow card". There have been plenty of similar incidents that have ended in red.

The Ireland captain got up and dusted himself down in time to kick another penalty to the corner from which Leinster got their fourth.

This time the out-half passed back inside for Lowe who managed to touch down amidst a sea of bodies for try number 42 in his 61st game for the province.

Leo Cullen’s side led 28-3 at the break and the only blot was Jack Conan going off for Rhys Ruddock, perhaps precautionary with the result beyond doubt.

With Connacht still down a man, Leinster just ran the numbers and after returning hooker Rónan Kelleher broke the line, it was Henshaw who coasted through the gap for try number five.

Connacht got their first try shortly after with Tiernan O’Halloran coming onto a delayed Carty pass to take the grim look off the score.

Finlay Bealham soon departed for a HIA and a few minutes later Jack Aungier was sent to the bin for a stupid shoulder-to-head challenge on Josh van der Flier past the point of the ruck, right in front of the referee.

When the next scrum was called Connacht, like Italy in the Six Nations, were not able to fulfill their front row obligations and had to play uncontested scrums and with 13 players.

Inevitably, Leinster soon took advantage with Lowe dummying the drifting Connacht defenders and touching down after Garry Ringrose had broken the line.

Sexton, after waiting for the officials to talk themselves out of disallowing the score for a forward pass, kicked his sixth conversion from six shots, and his day’s work was complete.

Playing a penalty advantage close to the line, replacement Sammy Arnold stretched out to grab another consolation score, which Carty, again, could not convert.

The URC leaders refused to let up and Ross Byrne dummied in the line before sending Lowe, who scored two tries last weekend, over for his third.

Both sides emptied their benches at this stage it was a matter of playing the clock down and getting set for their respective trips to South Africa.

Abraham Papali’i barged over in the corner with 10 minutes left with Carty converting from a tight angle.

But, fittingly, it was Lowe who had the last say, running on to Byrne’s kick to grab his fourth of the day.

Leinster will have tougher days; for Connacht it was just a bridge too far.


Leinster: Hugo Keenan; Jimmy O'Brien, Garry Ringrose, Robbie Henshaw, James Lowe; Johnny Sexton (capt), Jamison Gibson-Park; Andrew Porter, Ronán Kelleher, Tadhg Furlong; Ross Molony, Josh Murphy; Caelan Doris, Josh van der Flier, Jack Conan.

Replacements: Dan Sheehan, Ed Byrne, Michael Ala'alatoa, Devin Toner, Rhys Ruddock, Luke McGrath, Ross Byrne, Ciarán Frawley.

Connacht: Tiernan O'Halloran; John Porch, Tom Farrell, Bundee Aki, Mack Hansen; Jack Carty (capt), Caolin Blade; Matthew Burke, Dave Heffernan, Finlay Bealham; Gavin Thornbury, Leva Fifita; Cian Prendergast, Conor Oliver, Jarrad Butler.

Replacements: Jonny Murphy, Denis Buckley, Jack Aungier, Oisín Dowling, Abraham Papali'i , Kieran Marmion, Sammy Arnold, Conor Fitzgerald.

Referee: Luke Pearce (RFU)