Saturday 21 October 2017

Alan Quinlan: Sportsground scenes reminded me of Thomond Park glory days

Bundee Aki of Connacht is tackled by Josh Bassett of Wasps
Bundee Aki of Connacht is tackled by Josh Bassett of Wasps

Alan Quinlan

After the shock announcement that Pat Lam will leave Connacht, Saturday's stunning win over Wasps couldn't have come at a better time. The whole province needed a lift and they got it in spades.

The timing of the announcement wasn't ideal, but regardless of whether it had happened when it did or not, taking on Wasps was always going to be a tough task.

Jack Carty is swamped by his Connacht team-mates after kicking the match-winning conversion against Wasps. Photo: Matt Browne/Sportsfile
Jack Carty is swamped by his Connacht team-mates after kicking the match-winning conversion against Wasps. Photo: Matt Browne/Sportsfile

It was another special moment at the Sportsground and the scenes at the full-time whistle will live long in the memory.

I was lucky enough to be involved in so many of those unforgettable days in Thomond Park and this win was a real throwback to that.

Bundee Aki said afterwards that Connacht deserve their place at the top table and I agree with him. If you want to regularly compete at this level you have to continuously raise your standards both on and off the pitch and Connacht are doing that.

Wasps' spending power is enormous, which is what makes Connacht's achievement all the more incredible. They've now beaten Toulouse and Wasps at home this season, which gives them a real chance of getting out of their pool.

The journey that Connacht are on at the moment reminds of my early days with Munster. We knew that a lot of the teams we played against were probably more talented, in that they had more superstars.

They definitely had more money, but we always took massive satisfaction in trying to outwork the opposition and show more desire and passion.

You have to enjoy playing through that pain barrier when you're under pressure and Connacht definitely did that on Saturday.

Look back at our game against Saracens in 2000, when Mark Mapletoft scored a late try to put them in front. Mick Galwey got us together under the posts and just said: "We're going to go up the field and we are going to score."

Jack Carty of Connacht kicks the match winning conversion. Photo by Matt Browne/Sportsfile
Jack Carty of Connacht kicks the match winning conversion. Photo by Matt Browne/Sportsfile

It sounds so simple, but we all looked at each other and knew that it was in us to do it.

Moments like that define teams and when Josh Bassett scored late on in Galway, John Muldoon probably said something similar to his players.

When you can create that level of belief and have that much confidence in each other, it allows you to create those special days, even when you are not at your best. Connacht's performance was far from flawless and they certainly rode their luck, but sometimes you need the rub of the green.

By the letter of the law, their late try should not have stood but that was another break that went in their favour.

They were under pressure in the scrum, especially when Marty Moore came off the bench. It was another reminder of his quality. Moore has almost become a forgotten man at Wasps, but in my eyes he is still one of the best Irish tightheads.

The Connacht supporters have stuck by their team through thick and thin and they deserved that moment on Saturday as much as the players.

It was the same for us in that win over Saracens. To be able to share it with the supporters makes it all the more special.

Jack Carty had his Ronan O'Gara moment and it could yet be the making of him. When O'Gara slotted that conversion at the death against Saracens, everyone who was in Thomond Park that evening immediately knew that it would stay with them forever.

Carty admitted himself that his place kicking does need to improve, but he showed unbelievable character to step up and slot the touchline conversion to win the game.

Connacht have had to deal with so many injuries, but it was their never-say-die attitude and relentless desire that got them over the line.

They were down to the bare bones in the backline. Rory Parata started in the centre alongside Bundee Aki and Danie Poolman came on for Matt Healy and scored what proved to be a crucial try. Muldoon made a try-saving tackle, Tiernan O'Halloran was in the sin bin and they were getting turned over far too easily.

The easy option would have been to wilt and throw in the towel, but there is a steely toughness about this Connacht side and they found a way to dig out the win.

Whoever replaces Lam will have big shoes to fill, but there is no doubt that Connacht is an attractive proposition for another top-class coach to take on. The whole perception about Connacht has changed.

They are still work in progress and there is a certain degree of vulnerability about them. If you're going to attract the best coaches and players in the world, you've got to sustain this over a period of time.

Getting that new 15,000 or 20,000 seater stadium would be the icing on the cake. It's very much in their plans and every time I meet someone from Connacht, you can feel that ambition. It's infectious and everyone in and around the club is feeding off it.

When the Champions Cup resumes next month, they will be looking at a bonus-point win at home to Zebre which would put them on 18 points before going to Toulouse.

Toulouse will probably be beaten by Wasps in round five, so, theoretically, one point in France could put Connacht through as a best runners-up.

Connacht have won in Toulouse before, so that trip won't be as daunting as it might have been in the past.

Their focus will now switch back to the bread and butter of the PRO12 and they've got to get back up in the league and make sure that they are competing for a play-off spot.

Their European destiny is back in their own hands and even though there is a lot more work to be done, they will feel a hell of a lot more confident than they did at the start of the weekend.

These are special times in Connacht. The players and supporters should cherish every minute of it.

Irish Independent

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