Savour every second of the Connacht fairytale

Saturday night makes one appreciate that the beauty of sport lies part in the fact that there is more to success than money, natural ability and rankings.

If they alone were the yardsticks for success then Rory McIlroy would have won the Masters by now, nobody would ever beat Barcelona and you could forget Leicester City ever getting a sniff of the Premier League title.

Yet they did reach the summit against the odds and they did buck the convention which dictated only the elite have a right to win one of the most competitive leagues in the world.

And Connacht now can too.

On Saturday night, the Irish province which but for the noisy protests of its citizens would have been shut down as a cost-cutting exercise by the powers that be a mere 13 years ago, booked their place in next weekend’s Guinness PRO12 final.

And given the way Pat Lam’s side have consistently defied expectations of coming up short throughout the season, few would bet against them going the whole way and beating Leinster in Saturday night’s final at Murrayfield.

In a season of firsts which saw them reach the PRO12 play-offs for the first time, doing a home and away double over Munster and defeating Leinster in Galway, Connacht on Saturday night saw off defending champions Glasgow, who had had a third straight final appearance in their targets.

Showing the same ferocity and fight at the breakdown mixed with the bravery and steel in defence that had done for Glasgow in the final round of the regular season, Connacht were well worth their 16-11 victory, in the process showing they do not need the wind to howl and the rain to fall to secure a victory on home soil..

Connacht had halted Glasgow’s eight-game winning streak on the last day of the season, earning themselves the PRO12’s golden ticket, a home semi-final draw.

The sight of a sunny Galway and sparkling blue bay on the television was absorbed with envy and quite frankly, incredulity, from beneath dark Kildare skies as the Irish Open golf stopped and then started and then stopped again in the midst of downpours and the threat of lightning at the K Club on Saturday evening.

Yet even a distance removed from the Sportsground, the crackling atmosphere there was all too obvious.

If their home victory over Leinster at Easter was a spine-tingling affair in the flesh, particularly when the full-time whistle threatened to lift the roof off the Clan Terrace, the impact of Saturday’s semi-final win via the small screen was several times more raucous.

Sky Sports’ post-match interviewer Graham Simmons was engulfed by a tsunami of people as he attempted to discuss the game with man-of-the-match Bundee Aki, the centre and part-time No.8 who has done so much to help spark this group.

A fortnight ago, as Connacht swept the Guinness PRO12 awards with seven players on the team of the season, captain John Muldoon named recipient of the Chairman’s Award and Pat Lam honoured as coach of the season, Aki was crowned players’ player, a night after receiving the same honour from his province.

Shielded from the celebrations from players and fans alike on the pitch by a flimsy transparent backboard, Simmons heard the Kiwi with Irish aspirations illustrate just how much he has bought into Connacht’s heritage, population and vision.

“I’ve never experienced an atmosphere like this before. It’s bloody brilliant, bloody awesome,” Aki shouted above the din. “It’s great. Finalists for the first time in our history. It’s something great for the guys who played in the jersey before us, guys who play for us and guys like our captain John Muldoon, who’s played more than 200 games. So this game’s for the ones who went before us.”

Perfectly dovetailing past and present, Connacht’s bright future looks even more optimistic. Three days on from unveiling a four-year strategic plan that envisages four of its players in every Ireland matchday 23, consistent Champions Cup qualification and a new 10,000-seater stadium, they may well embark on that journey as Guinness PRO12 champions.

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