Alan Quinlan: A glorious dream is now Connacht's reality but they must keep Pat Lam
Published 30/05/2016 | 02:30
After 60 minutes of Saturday's final, I looked at the scoreboard. Connacht 20-3 Leinster, it read.
And that was when it hit me. That something that was unheard of, Connacht putting that type of score up on a team like Leinster, was part of rugby's new reality.
And the reality is this. They're a major force now, on as well as off the pitch.
This weekend proved that. I kept seeing it everywhere. Fans, dressed in green, high on life, kept popping up, at the airport when their side arrived in Edinburgh, at the Marriott hotel where the team stayed, on the streets surrounding Murrayfield, at the tunnel where the bus came into the stadium. That is the image that will stay with me forever, that picture of the bus entering the stadium and a crowd of fans greeting its arrival with the loudest cheer some of us will ever hear.
And it brought me back to what we had experienced with Munster. I stood there, watched the scene unfold and drifted back in time. "That is what it is all about," I said.
Then, when the final whistle went, and the emotions of 131 years burst out, I looked at John Muldoon and remembered all the wars that man has been through, all the defeats, all the bad days, all the times when the present seemed dark and the future appeared bleaker. And I thought about his leadership during those hard years and then I looked at his leadership on Saturday and it became so plainly clear that he epitomises everything that this Connacht story is about.
He has always been a winner, no matter what was written on a scoreboard. And on Saturday, he became a champion, the most deserving one I can think of, considering all he has put into the game of rugby, not just into Connacht.
The bad news is they're up there to be knocked now. Will they drop their standards? I'm not so sure they will because, over the last number of years, they have put a very good structure in place, built a really impressive squad and have, in Pat Lam, a world-class coach.
So for me, two things have to happen if the next chapter of this Connacht story is to be as good as the one we have just read. Number one, they've got to go from the Sportsground and find a bigger venue where they can capitalise commercially on what they have done and build their fan base, reaching out to rural areas in Connacht.
And number two, they have to hold on to Lam. People will come calling for him now. That is inevitable. Whenever Joe Schmidt finishes up with Ireland, Lam will be the one they target. That is the price of success.
For Leinster, the price of failure will be painful. Already this season, there has been a lot of criticism given what happened in Europe. And now, after the manner of Saturday's defeat, further pressure will come on to the shoulders of Leo Cullen. That's the downside to being a professional coach. When you lose, hard questions get asked.
And while you can say he has had it hard this year, that he had to go through pre-season without a large number of his players who were away on international duty, that he never got sufficient credit for getting the team to finish top of the league, the bottom line is they need to take a good, long look at themselves because, when you compare budgets, with the amount of players coming through, Leinster should be winning that final. They are a big club but they got dominated by Connacht. Big players did not perform. That's something they have to live with over the summer.
As for Connacht, they can live with the glory of this victory forever. And they deserve to because I was so impressed by how they handled the occasion firstly, and then Leinster, secondly.
Staying in the same hotel as them, I noted how relaxed the players were, how nothing appeared to be fazing them, how intent they were on finishing off the job.
And they did. Their overall control of Saturday's game was incredible. Leinster came out with the intention of outmuscling them, making a statement of intent, just as they did against Ulster in the semi-final. Yet Connacht didn't buckle. Instead, they put in ferocious hits, delivered in a big way at the breakdown, and after six minutes they simply took control. It was unbelievable to watch.
Their line speed in defence was brilliant, and, as a result, neither Johnny Sexton nor Ben Te'o got the space they craved, which had a massive effect whenever Leinster tried to move the ball. Contrast their attack with Connacht's. The way they can execute a game-plan is a joy to watch, but not, I would imagine, a joy to play against.
Defending against them is so hard because their timing is exquisite and their lines of running, particularly from the guys not getting the ball, are so impressive. In addition, they have players who can make hard yards up the middle when they need to and there is an overall confidence that they are capable of holding on to the ball for long, long periods. And that was precisely what they did on Saturday. Leinster, accordingly, could not play.
For me, two moments served as a microcosm of the game. On 30 minutes, the hit by Bundee Aki on Sexton just summed up the intensity and desire which Connacht had. Then, when Tiernan O'Halloran scored the first try, it was as if they said to themselves, 'we are going to keep going here'. So they took a shot of adrenaline from that score and Leinster took a step backwards. They were shocked. Their plan had failed. But Connacht had Plans A, B and C and executed all three, showing a limitless ambition to their play, proving over the course of the season that they are a brilliant team.
It isn't a fluke. It's deserved.
Who says dreams can't come true?