BEHIND CLOSED DOORS The Aviva Stadium in Dublin was deserted for Sunday’s Guinness PRO14 match between Connacht and Ulster. Pic: Sportsfile
RUGBY is back. After a long break of 25 weeks between games, Connacht arrived at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin in good spirits last Sunday afternoon and left with a hard earned and hugely satisfying 26-20 inter-provincial triumph over Ulster after a thrilling encounter.
That fixture — and next Sunday’s clash with Munster — are all part of a rejigged conclusion to the 2019/20 PRO14 season over the next two weekends.
The play-offs are out of reach and the Champions Cup qualification is secure, so in one sense Connacht had little to play for.
In another sense, however, they were looking to make a mark against their inter-provincial rivals and they certainly did with this four tries to two triumph.
The game was part of a well-planned out and carefully-managed return to action for the IRFU. Four games over two weekends at the Aviva Stadium, behind close doors with only essential personnel and media present.
The process of getting clearance to enter the ground for those of us involved in broadcasting the game involved forms, online video tutorials, early arrival on match day for a temperature check and all the usual social distancing practices.
We arrived two and a half hours before the contest, parked on the street outside the ground and joined the queue for a very well laid-out process of getting a pass to get in.
All in all it was a hugely impressive show from the IRFU who are putting in an enormous effort to demonstrate how professional sport can be viable throughout the winter months with well-organised match day plans and stringent safety protocols for the 150 odd professional players involved across the four provinces.
The hope is that Ireland can play six games in October and November, including the conclusion to the 2020 Six Nations Championship.
Days like we saw at the weekend are a dry run for the coming months.
They are also full-on derby matches and both games over the weekend didn’t disappoint when it comes to entertainment and drama, with Leinster and Connacht delivering big results.
It was Connacht’s first game at Lansdowne Road since an inter-provincial with Leinster in 1989. Ulster have had a few visits there for Champions Cup knock-out games including two finals over the years, but the Connacht players will have relished this opportunity.
The start was blistering with Connacht notching two fantastic tries. Australian born full back John Porch scored one and made the other in only his second start in the 15 jersey. He received the man of the match award for his troubles.
Bundee Aki marked his 100th appearance for the province with a fine display and a brilliant try under the posts with three Ulster defenders hanging off him.
It was a game where Kieran Marmion and Jack Carty were in vintage form and one where new signings Alex Wootton and Jack Aungier delivered impressive performances.
Next up are Munster next Saturday afternoon then a break before the new season starts in October. Not business as usual by any means but a welcome return nonetheless.