The day Connacht announced they belong in the big time

It is telling to look back at Andrew Browne’s post-match quotes after Connacht had upset the odds in remarkable fashion at Murrayfield that sunny evening in Edinburgh, just how quickly the commitment had been in the westerners’ dressing room to drive on from the first piece of silverware in 131 years.
The day Connacht announced they belong in the big time
HISTORY IN THE MAKING: Tiernan O’Halloran is congratulated by team-mate Bundee Aki, right, after scoring Connacht’s opening try against Leinster in the 2016 Guinness PRO12 final at Murrayfield. The IRFU had considered disbanding the team 13 years previously. Picture: INPHO/James Crombie

It is telling to look back at Andrew Browne’s post-match quotes after Connacht had upset the odds in remarkable fashion at Murrayfield that sunny evening in Edinburgh, just how quickly the commitment had been in the westerners’ dressing room to drive on from the first piece of silverware in 131 years.

On this day four years ago, Pat Lam’s side had turned the provincial pecking order on its head to defeat four-time champions and strong favourites Leinster and win the Guinness PRO12 grand final by 10 points.

They had not scraped home, nor could they count themselves lucky to have got away with one against more illustrious opponents.

This was a comprehensive, well-deserved and stylish victory built on the back of an extraordinarily well-executed campaign.

That was certainly the feeling as Browne spoke to journalists, not long after veteran captain John Muldoon had hoisted the PRO12 trophy and collected his man of the match medal.

While Connacht supporters sang the Fields of Athenry around their team’s bus, the Galwegian lock spoke not of reaching his side’s holy grail, 13 years after the team was almost disbanded by the IRFU but for vehement protests, but at gaining lift-off for further success.

“We celebrated after the match but in the changing room Pat talked, Mul talked, it’s about backing that up next year,” Browne said that evening, “we can’t just be one-trick ponies.”

A lot has happened in those four years since. Connacht was no longer the weak link but circumstances counted against them as Lam left for Bristol and his replacement as head coach, fellow New Zealander Kieran Keane, failed to live up to the billing that his Super Rugby record as an attack coach with the Chiefs in Waikato had earned him.

Keane was gone just a year into his three-year term and his replacement Andy Friend has brought a resurgence in optimism that Connacht deserves to be treated on at least an equal footing as their provincial neighbours to the north, east and south.

Yet it is a very different team to the one which brought glory that Friend is deploying these days and it will have changed again by the time rugby returns post-pandemic later this summer after some exciting young signings announced in recent weeks.

And they will have to look no further back than four years ago for inspiration for this was a landmark performance by a Connacht team to outplay a Leinster side packed with international talent that could offer little reply to the creativity, tempo and belligerence created by the men in green.

If there were nerves from the relatively inexperienced westerners they were shortlived and quickly forgotten as the willingness to keep ball in hand in all areas of the field that had been instilled by Lam over his three seasons in charge was rewarded by two quick tries, brilliantly executed by full-back Tiernan O’Halloran and wing Niyi Adeolokun, whose individual finish was the highlight of the game.

Adeolokun had grabbed a pair of tries in the semi-final win over defending champions Glasgow and he would make a similar impact with this single piece of invention a week later.

When after sterling work from his forwards the ball found him out on the right flank, Adeolokun took the ball at full speed, then chipped and charged before collecting his kick with a deftly-cushion boot that took the ball over the line for him to score.

It was a wonderful moment and with fly-half AJ MacGinty adding a penalty, sent Connacht into a 15-0 half-time lead.

A Johnny Sexton penalty shortly after the break got Leinster up and running but Connacht’s leading try-scorer that season Matt Healy soothed any frayed nerves with a try on 56 minutes and not even a 66th-minute score from former Connacht hooker Sean Cronin would trouble the underdogs.

At 20-10 up, Muldoon was in no doubt Connacht were home and hosed ass he told Off The Ball recently.

“Sometimes you play in games and the PRO12 final was similar, where I never actually felt like we’d lose,” Muldoon, now defence coach under Lam at Bristol Bears, said.

“I felt that we were in a really good position, mentally, physically.

"The only concern was that we’d played quite a lot of rugby together, we were starting to fatigue a bit and I do think if we had another two or three games, because we maybe didn’t have as big a squad as other people, a lot of lads were going to the well every week, so that was probably the only concern with 10 minutes to go - ‘jeez, have we got the legs to do this’.

“But mentally and belief-wise, we believed and I certainly didn’t feel it off anybody with 10, 20 minutes to go that we were going to lose the game.”

Guinness PRO12 final, May 28, 2016

Connacht 20

Leinster 10

Murrayfield, Edinburgh

Attendance: 34,550

Half-time: 15-0

CONNACHT: T O’Halloran (S O’Leary, 68); N Adeolokun, R Henshaw (T O’Halloran, 71), B Aki, M Healy; AJ MacGinty, K Marmion (J Cooney, 60; P Robb, 65); R Loughney (R Ah You, 68), T McCartney (D Heffernan, 71), F Bealham; U Dillane (A Browne, 61), A Muldowney; E McKeon (S O’Brien, 41), J Heenan, J Muldoon - captain.

Tries: T O’Halloran, N Adeolokun, M Healy. Con: AJ MacGinty; Pen: AJ Macginty

LEINSTER: R Kearney (Z Kirchner, 60); D Kearney (I Madigan, 75), G Ringrose, B Te’o, L Fitzgerald; J Sexton, E Reddan (L McGrath, 57); J McGrath (P Dooley, 71), R Strauss (S Cronin, 41), M Ross (T Furlong, 41); R Molony (J Conan, 62), M Kearney (H Triggs, 16); R Ruddock, J Murphy, J Heaslip - captain.

Try: S Cronin; Con: J Sexton; Pen: J Sexton

Referee: Nigel Owens (Wales).

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