Tuesday 6 December 2016

Johnny O'Connor: It's Connacht's time to join game's greats

Memories of being second best can drive Lam's team to ultimate victory

Johnny O'Connor

Published 27/05/2016 | 02:30

Pat Lam (SPORTSFILE)
Pat Lam (SPORTSFILE)

Hindsight is a wonderful thing and so forth, but deep down I always believed this would happen.

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Even in the most difficult times when no one gave Connacht a chance, there was a burning passion for success in this province; ultimately there was failure but that is where success is built.

Players move on, others drive things forward and hopefully this group of players will fulfil Connacht's destiny this weekend; but I remember the first time I realised this province was on the brink of greatness.

It was a warm summer's evening in the Sportsground in April 2010, 7,000 fans packed into the stadium and it was the first time I thought: 'Whoa, this is big'. I had a real sense of pride and hope for the future.

We ended up losing the Challenge Cup semi-final 19-12 against French powerhouse Toulon, but with such a magnificent atmosphere that night it filled our squad with a belief that we were going places.

I had retired by the time Connacht reached another knock-out game in Europe - last year's quarter-final defeat away to Gloucester. But all the time the team have grown and grown and I knew all along that they would make the breakthrough.

Connacht finished ninth in 2011, eighth in 2012, eighth again in 2013, tenth in 2014 (the season they beat Toulouse), a record seventh last season and then second this term, with a Pro12 final to come.

The signs were there; consistency was always the problem, but there was an innate belief that if they got that sorted results would follow, and they would fly up the table.

That is what's happened this season, the mindset has changed, the belief has reached sky-high levels, and from the outside looking in, this team is confident they will win the Pro12 this season.

It's not just for the sake of saying it in the media, or saying it to the coaches, they know deep down if they can bring the same level of accuracy, intensity and togetherness they can beat Leinster in Edinburgh.

Primed

Connacht are primed for this game, there's nothing easy about winning against Glasgow. Warriors don't give up on results, but Connacht were just the better side over the last few weeks.

They seem irresistible at times, whether in attack or defence. Their back three of Matt Healy, Niyi Adeolokun and Tiernan O'Halloran are in the form of their lives. They're players who haven't been capped for Ireland yet, but have bright, bright futures.

Against Glasgow, they dominated in the air and going forward, and with Bundee Aki and Robbie Henshaw in front of them they are given the perfect foundation to use their speed and nous in the wider channels.

Kieran Marmion gave another stirring display too. He continues to freak out the opposition when he chooses to run instead of passing. Outside of him, AJ MacGinty is untouchable; he's a beast in defence and going forward he can wriggle through any gap.

I can't wait to watch his battle with Johnny Sexton, and generally Connacht have the better back-line coming into this game.

Up front is where the game will be won and lost. We all know about the Leinster scrum and lineout. Jack McGrath and Devin Toner are arguably the two best forwards in the league. But with players like Tom McCartney, Finlay Bealham, Aly Muldowney, Ultan Dillane and John Muldoon to name a few, don't tell me Connacht cannot cope in the pack.

In a Pro12 final, the four-time champions will know what it's all about; they'll understand the day better, they'll know when to switch on and when to switch off.

Youthful exuberance can count for so much in this sport. This Connacht panel are young side and you feel the significance of the game will not remotely affect them.

They are just going to go hammer and tongs; they won't show Leinster too much respect. Plenty of teams have fallen into similar traps in finals in the past, but Connacht won't be one of them.

They need to go out and enjoy the occasion, it's going to be an emotional day for all involved but let's leave that until after the final whistle.

Structured team is here for long run

I can still feel the begrudgers clinging on for Connacht to fail after they reached the Pro12 final, writes Johnny O’Connor.

There’s still people out there, guys in the media, who cannot accept that the provincial landscape is changing, and despite every hurdle this side has cleared, people still doubt them.

Even after that win over Glasgow, the second time in a row they have beaten the reigning Pro12 champions, some pundits believe Connacht are just a flash in the pan, and they will be put in their place next season.

Well, I’m going to go on record to rubbish those claims right here and now. This is a young, hungry and intelligent side, backed by indigenous and foreign influences that have created structures which will stand to Connacht for years to come.

In recent seasons Connacht have been the most proactive province on this island, they have been the ones looking to change things up and push rugby on by challenging the IRFU. Now Connacht have got their just rewards; for years they had to suffer politely in the doldrums and bordered on extinction, only to build up to this Saturday where now as province they can shout out loud.

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