Beating Glasgow again would be real statement - Connacht boss Pat Lam
Connacht 14 Glasgow 7
Published 09/05/2016 | 02:30
The Taoiseach was in the terraces, the President up in the stand. Enda Kenny may be more used to MacHale Park and Michael D Higgins Eamonn Deacy Park over the road, but such is the buzz around the Sportsground these days that everyone wants to get on board.
On Wednesday, tickets go on sale for Connacht's first home Guinness Pro12 semi-final as the champions Glasgow Warriors return to Galway and if it is anything like Saturday's game the 7,800 lucky souls who secure entry are in for a treat.
We came expecting a try-fest, but the rains blew in off the Atlantic and brought about a very different prospect.
All season, Connacht have been winning beautifully yet some questioned their defence and, by insinuation, their toughness.
This was a chance to win ugly, yet somehow they made that look beautiful too and, as they did, they dispelled any doubts about whether they deserve to be in elite company. After this performance, no one can question their mettle.
"We have always thought Connacht are a very good team," Glasgow coach Gregor Townsend said. "We always prepared really well for Connacht. We had a good record against them, until today, but that was because we prepared really well. I always thought their league position didn't show what they were capable of.
"This year they have got the belief of winning games, players playing international rugby, and they have backed themselves in how they play.
"You have more chance of winning if you keep the ball. We see a lot of similarities - we aim to play positive rugby and it's a great atmosphere here, as it is at Scotstoun.
"We viewed today as a quarter-final. We wanted our supporters to get back home and the history of the competition shows that no one has won an away semi-final. That's a new challenge."
That challenge will be made all the more difficult by the knee injury that looks set to rule Scotland centre Alex Dunbar out of the semi-final, while prop Sila Puafisi is likely to be suspended after his red card, but Connacht have injury problems of their own and a potential tighthead prop crisis after Finlay Bealham and Rodney Ah You were forced off with concussions.
They join long-term absentee Nathan White, who is still dealing with the head injury he suffered against Leinster last month, in the treatment room, and while his season isn't officially over, a return appears unlikely with Pat Lam describing the situation as "day to day".
The news on Denis Buckley was more positive with the coach hopeful his influential loosehead can recover from his fractured foot in time for the return game, while Bundee Aki will continue to soldier on after another incredible effort on the day he was crowned Connacht's player of the year.
The head coach will give his players today and tomorrow off, before re-assembling them on Wednesday. The real work of going again against the champions will begin on Friday.
Can they beat them twice in two weeks?
"It'd really send a statement, won't it?" Lam said. "There's no doubt that, with the injuries... they have a big squad with 40 internationals and any injury would be replaced with another one. As Gregor said, it's tough selections; they're leaving out some quality international players.
"For us, we're already digging deep now. I'm hoping that the next 48 hours is good news for some of the guys who are coming back.
"Although they're coming here I'd still say it's going to be tough because they'll take a lot out of today, but we'll have a lot of confidence. We've got to prepare well, that starts now probably. We'll go and enjoy our awards dinner tonight and then we'll get back to work next week."
Lam can draw solace from his players' performance, most notably in defence.
Glasgow got in Connacht's faces and used their terrific linespeed to shut the westerners' famed defence down, but the home side just rolled up their sleeves and hurled themselves into collisions; with John Muldoon, Ultan Dillane and Aki all prominent.
They survived an initial onslaught to go in front when the Samoan centre took a brilliant line off Robbie Henshaw and split a pair of Glasgow defenders to score, but despite going close on a number of occasions, they couldn't further their lead before half-time and were pegged back by Gordon Reid's try after half-time.
Lam will be fully aware that the visitors didn't help their own cause, with Finn Russell missing two first-half penalties and a kick to the corner, but the game turned on a moment of madness from Puafisi who hurled himself head-first at Kieran Marmion.
Ian Davies reached for his red card and Connacht went for the win, Shane O'Leary cross-kicked for Tiernan O'Halloran who rose above Stuart Hogg to score and the venue erupted.
Two more tries would have secured top spot on the ladder, but despite the man disadvantage the champions kept coming and will draw comfort from the amount of bother they caused their hosts.
"There's no doubt that if it's a nice day in a couple of weeks' time it will suit both teams," was Lam's summation. "Both teams will play and it will be a wonderful game.
"It's really set up to be a real spectacular game, both teams want to play. The biggest thing for us is that, if it does rain, it's going to come down to our culture and our character.
"We've shown today it's not bad."
CONNACHT - T O'Halloran; N Adeolokun, R Henshaw, B Aki (P Robb 74), M Healy; AJ MacGinty (S O'Leary 54), K Marmion (J Cooney 66); R Loughney, T McCartney, F Bealham (R Ah You 3) (JP Cooney 52) (Q Roux 70); U Dillane (Q Roux 73), A Muldowney; S O'Brien (E McKeon 63), J Heenan, J Muldoon (capt).
GLASGOW WARRIORS - S Hogg; T Seymour, A Dunbar (M Bennett 12), P Horne, L Jones; F Russell, A Price (G Hart 70); G Reid (J Yanuyanutawa 57), F Brown (P MacArthur 58), S Puafisi; L Nakarawa, J Gray (T Swinson 27-34); R Harley (Z Fagerson 56), R Wilson (S Favaro 19-27, 67), J Strauss.
Ref - I Davies (Wales)