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Friday 9 December 2016

Connacht, the team that nearly died, arise and claim the Pro12

Jerome Reilly and Martin Grant

Published 29/05/2016 | 02:30

Legend: Connacht captain John Muldoon celebrates with the trophy Photo: Stephen McCarthy
Legend: Connacht captain John Muldoon celebrates with the trophy Photo: Stephen McCarthy
Paul and Cillian Fogerty in Edinburgh before the Super 12 Final at Murrayfield Photo: Toby Williams
Fan family: Aidan O'Halloran with wife Evanne and daughter Maire, with Dana Maxwell Photo: Toby Williams

It was the final that pitched the trophy-laden aristocrats of Irish rugby against the upstarts from the west who dare to dine at the top table.

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And though played on a foreign field, it was a battle to savour at Murrayfield as Connacht pulled off the impossible dream and beat the nation's richest team by a whopping 10 points. It could have been more.

Thirteen years after the IRFU seriously considered shutting down the Connacht team and despite losing nearly a dozen of its best players in recent years to better-heeled teams, the men from the west were ready from the get-go to give it a right lash.

Thousands of rugby fans had made the voyage to Edinburgh to cheer on Connacht and Leinster for what many fans were calling "the rugby All-Ireland".

And armed with flags and banners, scarves and blowers, both blue and green fans from the East and the West made it a "home" game in the Scottish capital as they flocked though Knock and Dublin Airport or by sea via Belfast Port - and any other dinghy sailing to Scotland.

It was a trip worth making - for those with affinities west of the Shannon. Within 13 minutes Connacht drew first blood, Tiernan O'Halloran had the Fields of Athenry ringing around the capital after some fine work by Matt Healy.

Eight minutes later Connacht hearts, buoyed by the first try, nearly went into full cardiac arrest after Niyi Adeolokun went over again a superb individual effort after 21 minutes. Fifteen Connacht points on the board and Leinster scoreless.

The west were in dreamland, Leinster endured a first half nightmare that may be difficult to erase from the collective memory.

Tommy Bowe tweeted with considerable understatement: "What a half from Connacht #pro12final." Connacht were 40 minutes away from glory.

If Leinster fans were expecting a quick response after the resumption, they were to be disappointed.

The second half started the very same way with dogged Connacht defence augmented by rapid fire counter attack, though Leinster at least got on the scoreboard with a penalty.

But there was a another hammer blow coming their way. A perfectly weighted kick popped up to perfection for the marvellous Matt HealConnacht were 20-3 up with the clock ticking down.

Now the waiting game was down to just 20 minutes.

Leinster did get over the line but referee Nigel Owens had called play back for a forward pass. It was a close call. The sporting gods were smiling on the men from west.

But with a Connacht man getting treatment from an accidental clash, Leinster substitute Sean Cronin made the most of the numerical advantage.

The big prop found himself on the wing and ran in to give Leinster supporters some hope. Sexton converted. Connacht 20-10 Leinster.

There were nervous moments ahead but Connacht remained steadfast, dogged, determined and resolute.

With just minutes left, Pat Lam left his box and walked through the stand, patted by fans, to take his place on the pitch. He knew the job was done.

Fittingly captain John Muldoon was man of the match and there to see his greatest triumph was girlfriend Lorna Byrne, a Salthill girl who flew home from New York to watch her boyfriend of four years lift the trophy.

"We knew we were good enough, we had belief and thankfully it came through, it was phenomenal out there.

"I'm lost for words," said John after the final whistle blew.

Sunday Independent

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