Team that keeps defying logic and reputation ready to make history
Published 28/05/2016 | 02:30
John Muldoon has been here before. He's been photographed standing beside trophies at photocalls for the start of Pro12 and European tournaments but it was always hard to imagine him with any of the cups at the end of the season.
Yesterday was different. Muldoon walked onto the pitch at Murrayfield and as he stood next to the Pro12 trophy for photographs, he said to Pat Lam, "hopefully we'll be a bit closer tomorrow". It was finally easier to picture the possibility of Muldoon with a trophy after today's season finale.
When does a team deserve to win a final? Is it when the captain is a player like Muldoon, who on the occasion of his 275th game for Connacht will finally get to experience what it's like to lead his team in a final?
He has waited 13 seasons to get the chance to talk about the possibility of winning something. At various stages of his career, Muldoon received offers to join other clubs but he never pursued them.
He's a man who stood by his home club in a time when the word loyalty is slowly being rubbed out of sporting lexicon. He's a 33-year-old who's playing like time is running out but that's because it is - he's got one more season left in his contract so he may never get a better chance to win a title with Connacht than today.
When does a team deserve to finish their season with a trophy? Is it when they play the most exciting rugby we've seen from a province since the three-time Heineken Cup-winning Leinster team?
Connacht are a team that show that you can learn skills which work under pressure, a team which makes you sit on the edge of your seat at home or lean on people in front of you on the terrace, a team that keeps defying reason and reputation.
Sense suggests that a more experienced Leinster side will win today but, really, who the hell knows when it comes to Lam and Muldoon's Connacht and their ability to make predictions look utterly foolish.
Watching them train earlier this week, I have rarely seen players enjoy themselves as much.
Who knew players could have fun at training? Who knew players didn't have to train or play like it's some sort of a burden or be wholly tortured by the ideal of winning in order to convince others that they take their job seriously.
This attitude comes from the top down. Lam is a person who speaks to you like he's having a real conversation as opposed to talking in soundbites which are shaped for media consumption. The head coach also expresses himself in a way I've never heard before in Irish rugby like calling today's final a "celebration" of what the team has achieved this season.
Connacht are the kind of team which can spin their nightmare trip home from a Challenge Cup game in Krasnoyarsk last November into a priceless bonding session. Their charter flight had a technical problem which resulted in days of delay which was made worse by the airspace being shut down over Europe and the expiration of their visas. This is pull-your-hair-out stuff to even the most laid-back of folk.
Yet Tiernan O'Halloran broke into a huge smile when I asked him about that expedition this week, with Andrew Browne saying his team-mates told him it was one of the best trips they've ever been on.
What does that suggest to you? Maybe that those ridiculously over-priced team-building excursions executives like to send their employees on to paint pictures of trees with their colleagues are beyond over-rated.
Or maybe that the Connacht players actually enjoy spending time in each other's company.
Leinster will lick their lips with all this romance around their opponents today and may even feed off any sentiment that their position in this story is as possible spoil-sports of Connacht's dream.
What rubbish, as Leinster have their own ambitions and there's nothing deserved until the final victory. Because of their status and success, Leinster have helped make Connacht who they are today.
A few days after Connacht beat Leinster at the Sportsground in March, Muldoon brought up in conversation how they now have their destiny in their own hands and don't have to depend on Leinster to win to get them into Europe.
Connacht gained valuable experience from those seasons when Leinster won in Europe, which gave the Westerners a pass into the elite competition.
Today, Connacht only have themselves to depend on, with no room for sentiment.
A few days after that win over Leinster, I asked Muldoon if this season will count for nothing if they don't end up with the silverware they desperately want. Maybe it wasn't a fair question, given where Connacht have come from.
But we can't just judge Connacht on where they've come from. And no-one knows that more than Muldoon.
Leinster are the team that show sides like Connacht that you don't need to lose a final to win one, albeit Leinster had more experience of big games before they played and won their first Heineken Cup final in Murrayfield in 2009.
Connacht have achieved their top priority of earning a place in next season's Champions Cup and so their season won't ultimately be defined by today's result.
But, perhaps, it will be remembered for it.
Connacht to make some history today.