Sunday 25 September 2016

Johnny O'Connor: No dreams are too big now for Pat Lam's heroes

No reason why Connacht can't make waves in Europe with irresistible brand of heads-up rugby

Johnny O'Connor

Published 03/06/2016 | 02:30

Finlay Bealham, Aly Muldowney, Ronan Loughney, John Muldoon, Andrew Browne and Tiernan O’Halloran celebrate on the team bus last Sunday. Photo: Diarmuid Greene
Finlay Bealham, Aly Muldowney, Ronan Loughney, John Muldoon, Andrew Browne and Tiernan O’Halloran celebrate on the team bus last Sunday. Photo: Diarmuid Greene
Niyi Adeolokun of Connacht. Photo: John Dickson/Sportsfile
Pat Lam salutes the Connacht supporters. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Robbie Henshaw gets the champagne flowing after Connacht won last season's Pro12. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Tiernan O’Halloran is congratulated by Bundee Aki (R) after scoring the opening try. Photo: Paul Devlin/Sportsfile

I don't know where to begin after a week like that. What can you say? Everyone knew winning a Pro12 would be extraordinary for the province, but it's brought the game into a whole new stratosphere.

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It's a long time since the west of Ireland has had something to celebrate like that - maybe Galway's All-Ireland football win in 2001. But last weekend was on a whole new level. The celebrations were breathtaking, and it couldn't be more deserved.

This is a team who have been knocked time and again for living life on the edge. The 'you score three tries and we'll score four' philosophy. The 'play it out from inside your own 22; philosophy. The heads-up rugby philosophy.

It's something teams in the northern hemisphere have almost been scared to play in the modern era, and finally Connacht proved it works.

They've done it all season, they beat teams like this game after game. They put defences to the sword, they spread their attack, they cleared out rucks in the blink of an eye, they employed their tighthead as a scrum-half.

This isn't new to Connacht, it's just now people saw it in a final.

Pristine

But it was the perfect scenario and you couldn't have given them a better target. Leinster in a final, a first final in 131 years, a first ever piece of silverware as the prize, a beautiful pitch, pristine conditions and then one of the most raucous atmospheres I have ever witnessed.

The Connacht fans turned up in their droves and completely out-numbered their Leinster counter-parts. This was their day. And by God did the players pay them back.

Three Ireland hopefuls who missed out on the chance to go to South Africa got tries.

Niyi Adeolokun might still be a bit raw for international rugby, although don't get me wrong, he's good enough to be given his chance. But Tiernan O'Halloran and Matt Healy should have been picked in the initial squad by Joe Schmidt.

When Schmidt announced the Ireland squad a few days before the Pro12 final I'm sure he couldn't have foreseen how his decision could have looked so wrong.

Healy was fantastic; his awareness to sprint up-field, find the gap and create the first opportunity for O'Halloran was eye-opening, while O'Halloran's finish, where he made Rob Kearney look very ordinary in the same move, was another bit of class.

Adeolokun's try was superb: the chip was inch-perfect - not the first time we have seen him do that this season - then the touch on the way down was audacious to the extreme and the speed to out-pace Eoin Reddan rounded it off.

It was a wonderful try, as was AJ MacGinty's vision and Healy's pace to burn Dave Kearney and touch down Connacht's third try. Three brilliant efforts from Ireland hopefuls who could all have been in the initial squad selection.

But so be it, they're not the only Connacht players who can feel hard done by, and if they were playing with a chip on their shoulder they surely made their point. But from one to 15 and beyond you couldn't fault anyone.

It's been a brilliant season by a team who have bought into something: they've trusted in a theory, brought the standards up that bit more and then through all the extra repetitions on the training pitch they have created a confident team who are scared of no-one.

Bundee Aki encapsulates it all; he was brought in from New Zealand with a big reputation, but in a difficult first season curtailed by injury, he failed to reach the promised heights.

However just as Connacht improved, so did Bundee. He has become one of the best centres in Europe. His hit on Johnny Sexton in the final sent reverberations around the stadium, and I'm sure that sent out a statement to the players around him, Connacht are going to win this game.

It's those big hits that have defined Connacht's season; soak tackles have turned into shuddering collisions that stop moves at source.

Connacht have stopped conceding tries so frequently. One try against Leinster, one against Glasgow in the play-off, one against Glasgow in the final game of the regular season. This team can defend as well as attack.

They lose Robbie Henshaw, Aly Muldowney, MacGinty and Rodney Ah You this summer and people think that they won't be able to sustain what they did in 2015-16. But I think they can, and why not?

Hungry

Connacht have a young team of hungry players who have experience of playing big games, and more importantly they have experience of winning big games.

The likes of Sean O'Brien, James Connolly and Peter Robb are not going away any time soon. They are in their early 20s, and embody the future of Connacht.

And they're not the only ones either, outside of the five guys picked originally in Schmidt's squad to tour South Africa there are plenty of international class players who are just as good as the guys that will travel down south this month.

Next season Connacht won't just go along and enjoy their journey in the Champions Cup, because they can do a lot more than that.

When you hear men like Saracens coach Mark McCall come out and say he wants to avoid them, people stand up and take notice.

Connacht can make an imprint on European rugby for some time to come. We're not talking about winning the Champions Cup - they want to get out there and be competitive with the big sides, the super-powers of European rugby, and show it's not just the teams with the big bank balances that can win these matches.

It's all ahead of Connacht - John Muldoon said during the homecoming that he said he wants the people of Connacht to look ahead now and don't look back at what's happened in the past.

Next on the list is a bigger stadium, 10,000-12,500 is a very reasonable ask in rugby terms.

Rugby still plays second fiddle to GAA out west and it's crucial they keep it realistic, so they can fill it every weekend, which will make for an incredible atmosphere too.

But no dreams are too big now, Connacht proved by winning the Pro12 that they can do anything. They are major force, they will win interprovincials regularly and will hopefully play Pro12 play-off rugby again next term.

Europe is the next target: there's no point going in just to recite tales of their great 2015-16 season. They want to make major ripples, beat big teams and win the Pro12 again.

The future is very bright, with thousands of children wearing Connacht jerseys at the homecoming - those are the guys who will go on to play for their province and country.

This current Connacht squad and staff have left a legacy that will last for generations to come.

Connacht Abú.

I always knew we'd get there one day

I remember those days long ago when I first threw on a Connacht jersey under Steph Nel. There was no doubt they were tough times for the province but within our group everyone had an ambition and desire to win silverware.

We weren't like other teams; it was really tough to get things going, although we always put in the hard work too, and there was underlying spark that told me this province would go somewhere someday.

It was a good team, with players like Jerry Flannery, Eric Elwood, Damien Browne, Michael Swift and Eoin Reddan. If that side had stuck together, they may have done big things.

I went to Wasps, and eventually ended up going back to the team when Michael Bradley was in charge. He had done a great job but at that stage they had come so far.

The catalyst of change for me came with Eric, everything upped a notch. The new approach was refreshing and we could really sense a new ambition.

Then I retired and Pat Lam followed, and the rest has been written in history.

It's a modern day fairytale but Connacht have always had it in them to do this.

I'm delighted it's finally come true.

Irish Independent

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