Think of Connacht’s remarkable successes this season and one is immediately transported to Galway and the Sportsground.
The raucous atmosphere generated by an exciting brand of rugby and wholehearted effort on the pitch, matched by the deafening noise from the Clan Terrace has helped Pat Lam’s side defeat a string of visitors en route to Saturday’s Guinness PRO12 final, not least last Saturday’s epic semi-final win over defending champions Glasgow.
Yet, as Lam’s squad leaves for Edinburgh and a date with destiny in the form of provincial rivals Leinster at Murrayfield, it is an away day in Limerick that sparked the moment Connacht lock Andrew Browne sensed something special was brewing from the Westerners.
The night of November 28 may have been the point at which Munster’s season began to unravel spectacularly but for the team that inflicted what would be the first of a record five straight defeats on the southern province it was the result that put them on a very different trajectory.
Not only did Connacht’s 18-12 victory deliver Munster’s first defeat in Limerick in the PRO12 in 14 months, it was the visitors’ first Thomond Park win in 29 years, keeping them at the top of the league, as they consolidated their position in the top four that would see them claim second place 14 rounds later to seal an historic debut appearance in the play-offs.
For Galway-born Browne, 29, that trip to the nearest of neighbours was the one result that got him thinking it could be a special year.
“I suppose it would have to be Thomond Park away, wouldn’t it?” he said. “We’ve had a lot of bad away days over the years and actually that was the first thing that came to my mind when that final whistle went last Saturday.
“Going down to Thomond Park, Fortress Thomond Park and winning there was an incredible achievement and one of the highlights of the season.”
Last Saturday’s win to end Glasgow’s reign was certainly another and has further increased the excitement as those that can afford the hefty travel and accommodation costs prepare to decamp to Edinburgh.
Browne, who will most likely back up an established second-row starting pairing in Ali Muldowney and Ultan Dillane from the replacements bench on Saturday says the management and squad are doing their utmost to stick to the normal routine in the face of mounting anticipation.
“We’re well aware of the hype, but we are trying to make it as normal as possible. We’ll go through the same process that has got us to this point, so if we stick to what we have been doing all year I think that’s the way we’ll try and focus on it.”
It is all a very different world in Connacht to the one Browne witnessed in his native province as a teenager in 2003, when his older brother Damian, a future Connacht and Leinster forward, and their father marched on IRFU headquarters in Lansdowne Road to protest plans to withdraw financial backing of the professional team.
“Back in the day, Damian marched. He was there. My Dad was there as well. Back then, I wasn’t too aware of it. It is a very special place for me and all the other Connacht lads in the squad and even the other lads who have come in and embraced the culture of Connacht. It is a very special day this Saturday. Damian has been to a lot of clubs. But, Connacht is still his home. I’m sure, even having played for Leinster, he’ll be supporting us this Saturday.
“From being a supporter first, I’ve been coming to The Sportsground for I don’t know how long. Last Saturday was the best moment I’ve ever had here. It was very special. But, it’s not over. We’ve a massive job to do this Saturday.”
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