Connacht complete the unlikeliest journey in some style

A famous scene adorns the walls of the ACT Brumbies headquarters in Canberra, depicting the dressing room scenes after their first ever victory over the New South Wales Waratahs in Super Rugby. At that stage the Brumbies team were full to the brim with players rejected by their big Sydney neighbours and the win not only sparked emotional scenes but also marked a changing of the guard.

Connacht complete the unlikeliest journey in some style

Connacht has enjoyed a number of notable wins over Leinster over the last decade but none to equal the magnitude and significance of Saturday’s Pro 12 final at Murrayfield. With a title on the line and an opportunity to make history, this group of Connacht players not only stood up to be counted when it mattered most, but proved superior to their more established counterparts in all aspects of play with the exception of the scrum.

Central to this landmark victory was a clutter of players, six in total, who learned their trade in the Leinster schools system but were deemed not of sufficient quality to make the cut in their professional pathway. Three of those, Matt Healy, Niyi Adeolokun and AJ McGinty contributed fifteen of Connacht’s 20 point total with the blistering pace of Healy and Adeolokun creating havoc throughout.

Leinster had no answer.

For years, Connacht sat outside the window, noses pressed against the glass as Munster and Leinster enjoyed big days in the sun. They must have wondered would Connacht ever experience the joy of the winners’ rostrum. The fact that their inspirational captain John Muldoon was the one to lift the silverware seemed entirely fitting on a day Connacht finally arrived on centre stage.

Not only have Connacht secured a place in next season’s Champions Cup but they will do so as a No 1 seed which should prove beneficial when the pool draw is made at the end of June. The other Irish provinces will not be so fortunate.

By that stage Connacht should have stopped celebrating even if their loyal and committed support base could be forgiven for extending this historic achievement for the rest of the summer.

They won Saturday’s contest hands down and did so by embracing their first ever final appearance as a celebration of everything they had achieved to this point in a momentous season - consequently they carried no baggage into it.

Even when Leinster applied all the pressure in the opening 10 minutes, as they did in their semi-final win over Ulster, Connacht refused to panic and trusted the defensive structure and organisation that has served them well since absorbing the lessons from their Challenge Cup quarter final defeat to Grenoble.

Struggling in the possession stakes early on, when they did manage to generate some semblance of quality ball, they carried far more menace and shape in attack than Leinster managed to muster at any stage of this engaging contest with the excellent Tiernan O’Halloran registering a brilliant opening try that rocked Leinster back on their heals.

That score resulted directly from a searing break out of defence by Healy whose pace created panic in Leinster ranks every time he got on the ball. At out half, the highly impressive McGinty brought a variety that constantly asked questions with his game management and option taking under pressure absolutely superb.

If the attacking threat posed by the Connacht back line tore Leinster to shreds, the foundation for that superiority was laid by a voracious set of forwards led magnificently by Muldoon. On the occasion of his 275th appearance in a Connacht shirt he was a colossus.

If Leinster have reason to rue the fact that a number of players developed under their system came back to haunt them, then Munster too must be kicking themselves for allowing the magnificent Ultan Dillane escape their clutches.

He epitomises the new breed of Connacht forward who all appear completely at ease when asked to make key decisions with ball in hand in broken play. Both Dillane and Aly Muldowney play the role of second receiver and decision maker with total ease and possess a range of passing that any three quarter would be proud of.

In addition the set-piece play of the Connacht second row pairing is up there with the very best and, as in the semi final against Glasgow, completely obliterated Leinster’s line-out. In that key aspect, Leinster badly missed Devin Toner’s gargantuan presence and could have done without losing his second row partner Mick Kearney as early as the 15th minute. It has been that type of season for Leo Cullen.

For his counterpart Pat Lam it has proved a magical few months with the sustained work done on the training ground in improving individual skills married with the collective understanding of the way Connacht want to play coming to fruition at the most opportune time.

While it has taken three years to fully perfect, Lam has killed the notion that Irish teams don’t have the capacity to play multi-phase rugby. Rob Penney tried it with Munster but the ingrained culture favouring a more forward-orientated game based on playing in the opposition half acted as a deterrent in completing the task. Lam faced no such obstacles and has prevailed with stunning results.

Irish rugby owe him a great debt of gratitude for that even if it doesn’t naturally follow that every team should seek to play that way. One of the key ingredients that enable Connacht to do so is natural pace and they have that in abundance in the electrifying back three of Healy, Adeolokun and O’Halloran. Connacht were a joy to watch on Saturday and even the most committed of Leinster supporters generously acknowledged the quality of their play.

One wonders, however, how Joe Schmidt viewed this contest. With 11 of the starting Leinster side and two of their bench heading for South Africa next week, the ease with which Connacht coped with the threat of the their forwards at the set piece and the breakdown must be of concern. They won all the major collisions along with the key battle for the gain line. Against the immensely physical threat that the Springboks always produce, that is a big worry.

That will be of no concern to Connacht however as they celebrate the greatest day in the history of the game west of the Shannon. Under Lam, Connacht have become the trend setters in Irish rugby and have transformed themselves into the country’s leading provincial side.

Given that the IRFU were preparing to cut them adrift only 14 years ago, that is some achievement.

It is now up to Leinster, Ulster and Munster to play catchup. Whoever thought that could happen.

The photos marking this historic occasion are already being framed.

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Wednesday, May 18, 2022

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