Sunday 23 October 2016

Lam: This is just the start for Connacht

Connacht 20 Leinster 10

Published 30/05/2016 | 02:30

Tiernan O’Halloran splits the Leinster defence as he races away from Jamie Heaslip and
Rob Kearney (right) on his way to scoring Connacht’s first try during Saturday’s Guinness Pro12 final at Murrayfield. Photo:John Dickson/Sportsfile
Tiernan O’Halloran splits the Leinster defence as he races away from Jamie Heaslip and Rob Kearney (right) on his way to scoring Connacht’s first try during Saturday’s Guinness Pro12 final at Murrayfield. Photo:John Dickson/Sportsfile
28 May 2016; Connacht players, from left, Eoin McKeon, Bundee Aki, John Muldoon and Aly Muldowney celebrate after winning the Guinness PRO12 final against Leinster. Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Connacht's Rodney Ah You celebrates at Murrayfield. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
The Connacht team bus passes through Eyre Square in Galway during the Connacht rugby homecoming after their Guinness Pro12 League victory. Photo: Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile
Tiernan O'Halloran scores Connacht's first try during the Guinness PRO12 final against Leinster at Murrayfield. Photo: John Dickson/Sportsfile
Leinster's Richardt Strauss is tackled by Robbie Henshaw, left, and Niyi Adeolokun of Connacht. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

Every one of the provinces' breakthrough days has a moment that will linger long in the memory. Whether it's Peter Stringer's dart and dive in 2006, Simon Mason's enduring accuracy in 1999, Brian O'Driscoll's drop-goal in 2009, they are frozen in time.

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For the Connacht fans still coming down from the high of Saturday's win over Leinster at Murrayfield, there is a large menu from which they can choose their moment to cherish.

There are the three try-of-the-season contenders from their electric back-three, Ultan Dillane's monstrous surge up the left wing, Tom McCartney leaving Luke Fitzgerald for dead or the sight of Bundee Aki smashing Johnny Sexton having lined him up from a mile out.

It wasn't European success, but that didn't matter. A first major trophy in 131 years deserves thorough celebration, particularly when it is won in such breathtaking style.


And when Connacht can do this in a final against an experienced team packed with international class, it is hard not to wonder what they can do next, even if they are losing three key members of their starting XV this summer.

Pat Lam was already targeting a successful title defence and the last eight of the Champions Cup for his team and it would be foolish to discount the Samoan's ambitions. He is not to be underestimated.

Yet, it was important to enjoy this day after three years of hard work and decades of struggle.

For most of their history, Connacht have been an afterthought in Irish rugby and their struggles for recognition are well-documented. Yesterday, they bullied their way on to the centre stage and they enjoyed the attention.

"This is massive," Lam said of the success. "This is right up there as one of the highlights of certainly my coaching career, because of the amount of work that's had to go into it. From right the way back, I've never as a captain had to stand there and say, 'come on guys, we've got to believe, we've got to have confidence' because if we're talking about it, there's a problem.

"And so there's a lot of work that's had to go into what we've done, by everybody, and that's part of what gives the greatest satisfaction.

"Right at the beginning of the season, no-one or not many people would have known some of the names in our team. You know, a lot of the academy boys, we've used 46 players this year with all the niggles and injuries we've had, but someone's had a go and stepped in.

"So it is massive from the sense of what we've done and where we've come from."

There were times when this game appeared to be getting away from Leinster and the 20-10 scoreline was kind to a team who once again chronically underperformed on the big day.

There were no complaints from the men in white when they left the field, with Leo Cullen and Jamie Heaslip both conceding that they had been beaten by the better team.

The question they must answer during the summer is how have things gotten so bad that a team of their pedigree were so thoroughly outplayed.

"It's tough, they test you," the Leinster stand-in skipper said when asked about the difficulty of countering Connacht's threats.

"They play a very wide game, if you give them any sort of quick ball or let them play that wide-wide game, they will test you. They are very good at holding on to that width, they're very happy to turnover ball and test you. They stretched us.

"I thought we got out the gate pretty well, but we probably made more mistakes on the day than they did. In these high-pressure games, it's the team that makes less mistakes and takes their opportunities that wins it. They're deserved winners, and I can't take away from their performance at all."

In every area of the game except the scrum, Connacht were the better team. In the absence of Devin Toner, Leinster's lineout crumbled, while their line-speed was nowhere near what they needed it to be.

All season, they have relied on their league-leading defence, but they missed 31 tackles, six of which came from their player of the year Ben Te'o, who was a shadow of the dominant figure seen for most of this season.

Instead, it was the man who will replace the Kiwi at the RDS who shone. Robbie Henshaw was outstanding on both sides of the ball and, for all that Lam says players will come and go, the Athlone native will leave a big hole to fill. They coped without him for much of the season, but come the biggest day, he delivered.

So too did the back three of Tiernan O'Halloran, Niyi Adeolokun and Matt Healy who all outplayed the Ireland squad members opposite them, taking brilliant tries in different ways. If Joe Schmidt called on any of them for South Africa, they wouldn't let him down.

O'Halloran struck first, capitalising on a moment's hesitation from Rob Kearney to put the foot down and score, before Adeolokun collected his own chip brilliantly to make it 12-0.

AJ MacGinty extended the lead after Dillane's charge and, while Sexton pulled a penalty back after half-time, the waves kept coming as the out-half somehow stopped Tom McCartney short of the line after he had side-stepped Jack McGrath and Luke Fitzgerald.


They didn't have to wait much longer, however, as Healy raced on to a chip from the excellent MacGinty to score and, while Leinster rallied and Sean Cronin crossed for a try, they never got close enough to truly trouble the new champions.

Despite the impending exits, Lam is targeting further success.

"There's no team, not Leinster, not any of the Pro12 teams, no Premiership team will have exactly the same team every year," he said. "It changes but what won't change is the continued growth in all the different areas in this because we've got a plan.

"We're back for pre-season on June 30. I've already set the goals for next year. Being realistic, we've got to go defend this and go back-to-back in the Pro12. It's realistic for us to try and win it again.

"The second one is I want to try and get into the knock-out stages of the Champions Cup. I'll put that out there now because come June 30, we start the work again.

"We continue what we're building. That's the key. You set goals but you work every day to achieve them."

After everything they've achieved this season, you have to take the man seriously. But next year can wait, when you make history it's important to enjoy it. Connacht are the Guinness Pro12 champions and they thoroughly deserve their title.

Connacht - T O'Halloran (S O'Leary 69-72); N Adeolokun, R Henshaw, B Aki, M Healy; AJ MacGinty, K Marmion (J Cooney 61) (P Robb 66); R Loughney (R Ah You 69), T McCartney (D Heffernan 72), F Bealham; U Dillane (A Browne 62), A Muldowney; E McKeon (S O'Brien h-t), J Heenan, J Muldoon (capt).

Leinster - R Kearney (Z Kirchner 61); D Kearney (I Madigan 76), G Ringrose, B Te'o, L Fitzgerald; J Sexton, E Reddan (L McGrath 58); J McGrath, R Strauss (S Cronin 42), M Ross (T Furlong 42); R Molony (J Conan 62), M Kearney (H Triggs 17); R Ruddock, J Murphy, J Heaslip (capt).

Ref - N Owens (Wales)

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