ROUND 1 RESULTS:
Friday, April 29 -
MUNSTER 24 LEINSTER 30, Charleville RFC
Saturday, April 30 -
CONNACHT 36 ULSTER 12, Tuam RFC
Declan O'Brien and his coaching staff have brought 19 uncapped players on board for defending champions Leinster this year, and they got their title defence off to a winning start with a six-point defeat of Munster.
Captained by former All-Ireland League player Barry Lynn, Leinster scored three tries in the opening half to take a 25-16 lead by half-time.
Backs Dave Murphy, Gavin Kennedy and Bevan Duffy all crossed the hosts' whitewash, with Duffy's Boyne club-mate Bryan Croke kicking two conversions and two penalties.
Kilfeacle back rower Ger Luby, who led by example for Munster, grabbed their first half try and Dara Meade from Kanturk added the conversion and three penalties.
Ciaran O'Coilleain, the first player involved at this level from Rugbai Corca Dhuibhne, was a notable inclusion on the Munster bench, while there were two sets of brothers in the matchday squad - Pat and Eoin O'Connor from Junior League champions Cashel and Dermot and Brian O'Sullivan from Tralee.
Replacement Brian O'Sullivan (try) and Meade (penalty) added to Munster's tally in the second half, but despite a late rally John O'Neill's side were second best on the night.
A second try from centre Duffy, in the third quarter, gave Leinster enough of a buffer to see out an encouraging bonus point win for a squad that only came together three weeks ago.
Coached by Seamus King and Eddie Walsh, Connacht quickly established a foothold in the game and were 10-0 to the good by the turnaround.
Playing into the wind, they boxed cleverly and used their strong set piece to put Ulster under pressure, with out-half Ger O'Connor landing a 15th minute penalty and the pack garnering a penalty try late in the half.
Ulster loosehead prop Matt Wilson was warned after a series of dropped scrums near the visitors' line. From an ensuing penalty, another collapse prompted referee Will O'Connor to run in behind the posts and signal for a penalty try which O'Connor converted.
Some excellent touchfinders from Sligo's Paddy Pearson, who was introduced for the second period, kept Connacht on the front foot.
Ulster gained some promising territory and had the hosts under some pressure until a loose pass from centre Colin Atkinson was intercepted by Connacht's Rory O'Connor and he had the gas to make the line from 70 metres out.
Pearson followed up with a terrific conversion from wide out, and lively scrum half Mickey Murphy from Ballina put Aaron Spring through a gap. The Sligo winger had two men to beat but managed to power through the tackle and dot down in the corner.
Ulster are coached by Dromore's Jacques Benade this season, along with Andy Hughes from Armagh and Mark Neilly from Portadown. They beat Connacht 34-23 when the sides met last year, but struggled in this encounter.
After another pinpoint conversion from Pearson, Connacht's tails were certainly up at this stage and they grabbed the bonus point score in the 63rd minute when Pearson's skip pass sent winger Dave Prior hurtling past two defenders for the try.
O'Connor added his second try of the afternoon and Connacht's fifth, following up on an initial break from flanker Eoin Rooney. Pearson completed Connacht's scoring with his third conversion from close to the touchline.
Ulster managed to salvage some pride in the closing ten minutes, courtesy of tries from Dromore's Gary Hall and David Sharkey, Clogher Valley's Towns Cup-winning captain. The conversion from Coleraine out-half Adam Parke was the last kick of an entertaining tie.
The victory was the first part of a fantastic hat-trick for Connacht rugby over the Bank Holiday weekend. On Sunday in Naas, the Buccaneers Under-19s and Galwegians Under-17s won their respective All-Ireland Cup finals.
NEXT WEEK'S FIXTURES:
Saturday, May 7 -
ULSTER v MUNSTER, Limavady RFC, 2.30pm
LEINSTER v CONNACHT, Donnybrook, 3pm