Connacht’s Shannon Touhey said it was ‘the cream on top of the cake’ to come from nine points down and beat Leinster 18-17 in a thrilling Vodafone Women’s Interprovincial Championship opener.
The westerners got their campaign off to a blistering start at the Sportsground, securing only their second ever Interpro win over Leinster. They visit defending champions Munster at Musgrave Park next Saturday.
Centre Touhey showed her versatility by switching to number 8 during the second half, and the result brought back memories of her Connacht debut in 2016 when they last defeated Leinster.
“It’s pretty surreal. We worked really hard in training. We have a lot of young girls coming through,” said the Tullamore native, who won her first Ireland cap against Japan in November 2021.
“We came out of the gates, raring. At that moment (when Méabh Deely scored the first try inside two minutes) I was like, ‘here we go, we have a game on our hands’.
“But at half-time we hit our purple patch. One of our pillars is resilience and we showed it on the day. We came back fighting and here we are.”
Sene Taiti-Fanene and new cap Naoise O’Reilly strung together third quarter tries to give Leinster a 17-8 lead, adding to a superb solo effort from Eimear Corri.
That put it up to a new-look Connacht team that was missing regular captain Mary Healy, Mairead Coyne, Laura Feely and Fiona Scally, who have all retired in recent months.
However, there are already new heroines emerging at the Sportsground, none more so than 22-year-old Ballinasloe pair Deely and Aoibheann Reilly.
Scrum half Reilly enjoyed a triumphant return in the green jersey after a long spell out with an ACL injury – it was her defence-slashing break that set up Deely’s opening try.
With Lyndon Jones’ charges playing a great brand of rugby and new skipper Nicole Fowley knitting it all together, full-back Deely carved through to set up replacement Orla Dixon’s try, which cut the gap to 17-13.
Connacht found space out wide again in the 81st minute for Clara Barrett to burst past Jess Keating, with her neat offload back inside seeing Deely complete her brace.
They still had to come through seven more minutes of injury-time – including a Hannah O’Connor penalty miss – before the celebrations could begin.
Praising the confidence brought by the squad’s younger contingent, Touhey added: “I think it came from a lot of the young girls. They’ve been through the Under-20s programme, they’re playing AIL with their clubs, they’re meeting these girls every week so they knew exactly what they were up against.
“To be honest, they kind of dragged us on. They brought in that belief and that was it, like. We found it and we went with it. Home turf, that was the big thing. We weren’t going to be beaten here.
“We’ve another match next week. We need to come down, gather ourselves and we’ll go again.”
While Touhey rated it amongst the top three achievements of her Connacht career, it was Dearbhla Canty’s first taste of Interprovincial action and she made her presence felt having been sprung from the bench for the final 20 minutes.
An impressive performer for Galwegians in the Energia All-Ireland League, the versatile forward (24) gained experience with Connacht’s Emerging Talent squad before making the step up to senior level.
Replacing excellent prop Shannon Heapes during the closing stages, Canty admitted that she lost track of the scoreline in what was a helter-skelter finish at the Galway ground.
“The longest seven minutes (of injury-time), but the most enjoyable seven minutes! I thought we were five (points) down, and then I turned around and the whistle blew and we were one up! That was unbelievable,” she said.
“This is my first cap. But the likes of Shannon Touhey, Nicole Fowley (pictured above), Shannon Heapes – the ones that have the experience – I just looked up to them.
“The young girls were petrified, but we looked to the likes of them and they were like, ‘relax, cool out’. ‘What’s going to happen, you’ve nothing to lose here?’ It’s our home turf and we’re just going to fight.”
Canty and her team-mates will be hoping to upset the odds again when they visit table toppers Munster in Cork next weekend, before hosting Ulster back at the Sportsground in the final round.
Showing how much it means to play in front of their home crowd, Canty gave a sense of their fierce determination to turn things around when falling behind to Leinster.
“We all looked at each other and said, ‘this is not going to happen on our home turf’. No way, no way,” she added.