Alan Quinlan: Connacht's fairytale season looks set for a happy ending
Toner and Nacewa's absence is a cruel blow to Leinster but offers Connacht a huge opportunity to make history
Published 28/05/2016 | 02:30
May 2000. We hadn't expected to get this far. Nor had anyone else. Our first Heineken Cup final. Along the way, we'd beaten Saracens (twice), Stade Francais and Toulouse and here, the night before the final, as we sat down for a group meeting, we were excited about what was up ahead, not thinking about what could go wrong.
So in this hotel function room, on this breezy night, we are asked to talk about what this means to us, this journey we have been on. And it seems like a good idea. All of us - over the previous number of years - had arrived into professional rugby, giving up work to take a step in a new direction, and now, all of a sudden, here we were, on the brink of history. So we spoke openly and frankly about our personal treks, outlining how hard we'd worked, the sacrifices we'd taken, the effect a win would have on our lives, the pride it'd give our families.
One by one we spoke. Tears were shed - not by all of us but by a few of the guys. In his autobiography, ROG (Ronan O'Gara) suggested we left too much emotion in that room and that it affected us the next day. Jokingly, I, in turn, slagged him, saying if he'd landed those late penalties, the team meeting would never have been talked about.
Yet ROG's point holds true. Finals are different to other games. The bigger stadium, the noisier crowd, the mad stuff that normally never happens, like fans thumping the side of your bus as you make your way through the streets - is something Connacht's players are going to experience for the first time today.
And the obvious danger is the occasion will get to them - that, under intense scrutiny, they will be nervous about making a mistake and therefore will play within themselves. So the biggest task Pat Lam has to face is to convince his players that they have to play the way they would in the Sportsground.
Which is why I was impressed by the message Lam was putting out there this week, his constant references to sticking to the process, to players trusting their instincts, believing in their capabilities. All week he has been trying to keep things as steady as possible and when I think back to our first final 16 years ago, it's a wise policy.
Because for me, Connacht's journey to Edinburgh today is so similar to the one we took to get to Twickenham in 2000. This is their first final of any kind; Twickenham was our first European decider. We started the 1999/2000 season with low expectations. Likewise, so did Connacht at the beginning of this campaign.
We took major scalps along the way. So have Connacht. That night in November, when they beat Munster in Thomond Park, that was the night I was convinced they had what it takes to go all the way.
And the more I have seen of them since, the more I have been struck by their ambition, their skill, their sense of adventure, their absolute trust in the system Lam has spent so much time implementing.
Along the way, they've had to endure some serious character tests too. Like what happened to them in December and January when they lost to Cardiff, Ulster, Leinster, Scarlets. That was where the dream was meant to end.
Yet they bounced back, going on yet another great run in February and March, calmly knocking back one big team after another, including Leinster at the Sportsground, when - under severe pressure - they defended heroically to deliver a 7-6 win.
And it is moments like that which make me believe Connacht can win today. Even though Leinster are the favourites, and even though they have lifted seven trophies since 2008 (compared to Connacht's total of no trophies from 131 years of existence), there is enough evidence to suggest an upset can occur.
To start with, they have improved their game-management. Having blown those big leads against Grenoble, in their Challenge Cup quarter-final, they have shown signs of being able to take the steam out of situations at key moments of subsequent games.
Against Munster in April, they conceded early tries but bounced back to win; and then against Glasgow earlier this month, they twice defied the odds, and ultimately made a very good team look very average.
The more I see of them, the more I get the sense that they are on a mission, that - like Leicester City - they are not going to implode, that they believe they can keep going right until the end. "We'll stop when we're ready to stop," appears to be their motto.
And there may be no stopping them. Even though Leinster have a seriously good squad, no team can easily cope with the loss of Isa Nacewa, their captain, and Devin Toner, their second-row.
In Nacewa, they had someone whose will to win is seen at critical times in games: those big tackles, that real aggression can set the tone for a team. Toner, meanwhile, excelled against Ulster last week and is the man who makes the calls in their line-out.
His loss will be huge for Leinster and goes a long way to convincing me that Connacht could have a fairytale ending to their season today.
Does this mean I'm discounting Leinster's chances? Far from it. They are favourites for a reason, are used to living with expectations, used to the big occasion and against Ulster last week, they played at a tempo which was really impressive.
That win was a sign of a tough, talented group - because you need both quality and character to produce a performance of that level, just three weeks after being heavily beaten by the same opposition in a regular-season game.
Yet that is what champions tend to do. Leinster have got used to success and to being in finals - this being their 11th final in eight years. They have built a culture which has been sustained through the changing of coaches and retirement of key players.
Even last season, which is widely regarded as a poor one, still saw them reach the Champions Cup semi-finals. This year they underperformed terribly in Europe but have managed to find a way to bounce back and top the Pro12, prior to reaching today's final. That highlights their mental strength.
Connacht's story is a different one, which makes today's battle all the more fascinating.