Connacht 35 Munster 14: This may have been the night when the penny finally dropped.
The narrative all season with Connacht has been to wonder when the bubble would expand beyond the limits set by the laws of the underdog, but here the realisation dawned that what we are witnessing may only be the beginning.
Two temporary terraces were erected behind the goals for a Guinness PRO12 fixture that was crucial to both teams and Pat Lam reminded us later that the hosts could have rammed far more than the 7,786 present in had the Sportsground and Health and Safety allowed it.
Lam often spends a percentage of his week doling out tickets to reluctant punters, but the days of the hard sell are dwindling. His school-going son confirmed that.
“He told me when he first started going to PE, there were very few (Connacht jerseys),” Lam said. “It was all Leinster and Munster jerseys. He said, ‘mate, everyone wears Connacht jerseys’. That’s a realisation of where we are and where we can go.
“There’s no doubt we need a stadium when you’re turning away people two weeks in a row now and (could) easily fill the ground.
“We need a realistic stadium of 10, 12 or 15,000. It’s not just a stadium for Connacht rugby. It’s a stadium for Connacht people.”
The potential for growth off the pitch was obvious on it.
This wasn’t Munster’s heaviest defeat of the professional era in the Sportsground. That dubious honour still rests with a 24-point loss in 2003, but that was a pre-season friendly. The margin here was three less, but it was historic in every other way.
Defeat for Munster leaves them outside the Champions Cup places on points difference with two games to go, but Connacht’s four-try bonus point win means they have now booked their passage to Europe’s showcase tournament for the first time.
Beat Benetton Treviso in Italy in a fortnight and they will add a PRO12 semi-final to their booty and set up another ‘ticket only’ extravaganza in early May when a visiting Glasgow Warriors side will vie with them for the prize of a home semi.
Lam described Glasgow as the PRO12’s ‘Toulon’ in that Gregor Townsend’s side have internationals coming out of every pore and are scything through the competition since the Six Nations. But Connacht have long become accustomed to bettering sides of supposedly greater means.
Munster fielded 11 full Irish internationals here. Connacht managed a quartet and yet they dominated possession and territory, and they scored 29 unanswered points to streak clear and win a superbly entertaining game with four tries to Munster’s two.
Connacht have had their tales of hard luck and moral victories but on Saturday they probably benefited from the rub of the green in pushing their southern neighbours closer to full-blown crisis mode.
Munster had started excellently, running the ball and fashioning tries for Simon Zebo and Mike Sherry in the first quarter to lead 14-6, but they wouldn’t score again after James Cronin was binned, contentiously, for collapsing a scrum seven minutes shy of the break.
Billy Holland followed him to the naughty step soon after and Connacht extracted full advantage with a five-pointer for Niyi Adeolokun and a penalty try.
Confirmation of where Lady Luck’s affections rested this night were confirmed after the restart.
Had Adeolokun’s 55th-minute try been disallowed for what looked like a knock-on, and Francis Saili not spilled the ball after diving over the Connacht line seven minutes later, the game would have been very different. But that isn’t to say Connacht didn’t merit this. They clearly did.
The most remarkable aspect was that the business of the day was done with 13 minutes still to play after Finlay Bealham went over for the hosts’ fourth try.
Memories of Grenoble meant the work ethic never dropped.
“When we got the lead at 32-14, or before that, we talked about the mental application to not switch off, to put the foot on the throat there,” said Lam. “Even at the end, with five minutes to go (and) the game was won, we turned the ball over. We weren’t going to give up.
“You could see the body language on the guys. That’s why I went down (to pitchside).
“I like to go down towards the end sometimes because I like to check the body language and see how guys are, see what they’re doing, how they’re talking to each other.”
What he saw confirmed was that the lessons of Grenoble had been learned.Train, try, fail or succeed, learn and do it better the next time. And they are doing it by delivering a superb brand of expressive, intelligent rugby.
R Henshaw; N Adeolokun, B Aki, P Robb, M Healy; S O’Leary, K Marmion; D Buckley, T McCartney, F Bealham; U Dillane, A Muldowney; S O’Brien, E McKeon, J Muldoon.
A Browne for Muldowney (63); JP Cooney for Bealham (67); F Carr for Aki (69); J Connolly for O’Brien (71);J Harris-Wright for Buckley and R Loughney for T McCartney (both 74); J Carty for Robb (74).
S Zebo; D Sweetnam, F Saili, R Scannell, K Earls; J Holland, C Murray; J Cronin, M Sherry, S Archer; D Ryan, B Holland; CJ Stander, T O’Donnell, J O’Donoghue.
N Scannell for Cronin, D Kilcoyne for Sherry and A Conway for Sweetnam (all 55); I Keatley for J Holland (67); J Ryan for Archer (69); J Coughlan for Ryan (69).
B Whitehouse (WRU).
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