What a year it has been for Connacht.
In a situation almost comparable to that of Leicester, Pat Lam’s side have won the Guinness PRO12 in style.
The 20-10 victory over Leinster on Saturday sealed the province’s first ever PRO12 triumph, and Connacht are already looking forward.
The men from the west were vastly superior on the day, and tries from Tiernan O’Halloran (2), Niyi Adeolokun and Matt Healy ensured that popular captain John Muldoon was the man lifting the trophy in front of a record final crowd of nearly 35,000 people.
The men in green have been winning in style all season, and were labelled the new All Blacks by Ronan O’ Gara.
But what next for Connacht? Is this the start of something special? Or will this incredible achievement prove to be a one off?
Pat Lam is already looking ahead. The Samoan said after the game that;
“True success doesn’t rely on trophies because only one team takes the trophy home. We’ve won it this time and it’s fantastic for everyone but we’ve got a plan and we have to keep going. We’re back on June 30 for pre-season and I’ve already set the goals for next year. We’ve got to defend this title and go back-to-back. It’s realistic for us to win this PRO12 again.”
It does indeed seem realistic that Connacht could retain the PRO12 crown next year. They were easily the best side in this year’s PRO12, and scored more tries than any other team. They play an attacking, innovative and daring brand of rugby.
Leinster legend Brian O’ Driscoll offered his congratulations and acknowledged that Connacht have played the best rugby all year. Current Leinster captain Jamie Heaslip also praised his rivals;
“They are a tough side to defend against. The punish you in all sorts of different ways and a very good defensive side as well.”
Hindsight is a great gift, but it seems staggering now to think that there was talk of the IRFU disbanding Connacht’s status as a province in 2005.
There are challenges ahead, and Connacht are still some distance off sides like Saracens, who won the double this year.
Connacht will have to cope with the losses of Rodney Ah You, Aly Muldowney, AJ McGinty, and Robbie Henshaw, who will all be leaving in the coming weeks.
However, despite his vast talent, the loss of Henshaw will not be as problematic as it appeared initially. Henshaw has only made 11 appearances for the province, and Bundee Aki and Craig Ronaldson have both excelled in his absence. Boshoff could also have a big impact at out-half.
Connacht have strength in depth in the backs, and players like Aki, O’ Halloran and Robb are only going to get better with time.
The loss of the influential and experienced Muldowney, however, may prove problematic.
The future looks bright for Connacht, and they will be hoping that Saturday’s historic win is the first of many forthcoming trophies. Time will show whether Lam can push Connacht on again, and take them to another level.
One thing is certain.
The West is awake.
by David Smith