Friend: ‘Leinster came hard at us – we know Munster will come even harder’

AT THE CITY end of the Sportsground, the clock ticked towards 8pm. Time wasn’t moving as fast as the scoring column under Connacht’s name, though.

After five minutes they had six points, after 14 minutes it was 16. More surprisingly, Leinster had yet to move off zero. The game may have started but it looked as though their minds were still in La Rochelle.

A little thing happened in the middle of this purple patch. After throwing a messy pass that was picked off by Caolin Blade, who subsequently touched down for a try, Luke McGrath used up his captain’s challenge.

He also used the time it took for the TMO and referee to assess the legitimacy of Blade’s score to gather the 15 Leinster players together. It was a strong message, the captain refusing to feel self-pity after making a costly mistake, the players rushing to the huddle to hear his voice and respond to it.

While the Leinster turnaround didn’t happen right away – Ross Byrne kicking the restart out on the full, before Conor Fitzgerald scored a third Connacht penalty to make it 16-0 – it wasn’t long before the champions re-asserted their authority. By half-time it was 33-16, the breakdown battle switching completely from an area Connacht were bossing to one Leinster absolutely dominated.

Caolin Blade celebrates the opening try. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

“That hurts,” said the Connacht coach, Andy Friend afterwards. “We all have to pick ourselves up now. We have Munster next Friday and they will have seen that game. Leinster came hard at us at the breakdown and those Munster blokes are going to come even harder.

“So we have got to sort that and we have got six days to try and get that right. The boys need to get up for an interpro and it is our job to make sure they do.”

That won’t be an easy task. Sorting out your maul defence is considerably harder when you don’t have Quinn Roux there to apply muscle. They rue the day he got injured. Last night, Leinster scored four of their eight tries off their set-piece.

“The first 14 minutes were fantastic from us last night but after that we were hurt in two areas, firstly by giving them access to our scoring zone, where they were so clinical,” said Friend. “You can see why they have won four straight Pro14 titles – given how well they finish.

“The second area was the breakdown. We were dominated there. I loved how we fought but as well as fighting, you have to be clinical.”

Buckley and Dooley compete at the breakdown. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Leinster showed them how. The bad start annoyed rather than panicked Leo Cullen, their head coach.

“We were probably a little over eager in terms of guys flying off the line – creating little triangles – and Connacht were able to pull us apart in the opening 14 minutes. Our discipline cost us, too, we gave away a few cheap penalties,” said Cullen in an interview after the game with TG4.

“We settled into the game much better after that. Our forwards had some good drives and we got over for some good scores.”

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How they needed them – for when the scoreboard moved towards 16-0, you wondered if Leinster’s European hangover was beginning to hurt. Two defeats on the spin looked like stretching to three.

“We have been very frustrated with the way the last couple of weeks have gone but all you can do is move onto the next challenge,” said Cullen.

“When you are bringing guys through all the time, you have got to keep learning, so overall we are pleased. We will see where we sit in the table.”

The answer is fourth, four points behind leaders Munster and second placed, Benetton. Ospreys are third, level on points with Leinster, but with a game in hand. The leading two sides after six rounds of fixtures progress to the final. In other words, Leinster have no margin for error left. They meet Ulster this Friday.

“We have had a couple of good battles with Ulster this season; it’ll come down to the contact area again and when I think back to the Belfast match in particular, they pulled us apart at the start of the game.

“It will be a good challenge for our guys – a few other players will come back into the mix.”

Leinster’s second row, Ross Molony, added: “We had a tough game against Connacht earlier this year so that was the theme we drove home to each other during the week, that we had to physically front up.

“I thought our pack did a really good job at maul time and scrum time.

“They obviously had the edge in the first 10 minutes but we talked about putting them defensively under pressure with two man tackles and then being clinical at the breakdown.”