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Tuesday 24 April 2018

In unlikely year of the underdogs, Connacht's bite matched fans' bark

Connacht head coach Pat Lam celebrates following his side's victory Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Connacht head coach Pat Lam celebrates following his side's victory Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

Eoghan Ó Neachtain

Lá Bródúil do Chonnacht. The journey finally ended when New Zealander, adopted Galwegian and Connacht coach Pat Lam declared live on TG4 that the win over Leinster was a "Lá Bródúil do Chonnacht".

As to when the journey actually started is difficult to say. One supporter who travelled to Murrayfield was of the view that Oliver Cromwell played his part, declaring on a large banner that "To hell was the easy option". Perhaps another less-loved man in these parts and also from New Zealand, Warren Gatland, played a role when he organised that 13-man Connacht line-out that powered over the try line at the Sportsgrounds against a visiting Australian national side.

I am sure that Eric Elwood, who was seen posing for selfies with adoring fans on Princes Street before Saturday's kick-off, had a major role in bringing the team that the IRFU had condemned to death in 2003 to victory over the professional clubs of four nations.

This particular odyssey, which included a trip to play on a frozen pitch in the depths of Siberia, finally rolled into Edinburgh last Thursday via Knock International. Little did the late Canon Horan imagine what a major service his legacy would be to the whole province.

Undeterred by the fact that the management of the Pro 12 had shoehorned the final into an already crowded city, hosting its annual marathon, fans in their thousands followed, some by air, but mainly by road, rail and ferry. Buses, cars, motorcycles and scores of motorhomes from Sligo, Castlebar, Roscommon, Galway and the heart of Connemara descended on Belfast ferry port. Members of an Orange lodge, also heading across Scotland by bus, looked somewhat bemused at the groups of passengers speaking Gaeilge in the bars and restaurants on board the ship.

As the teams were put through their pre-match warm-up routines, the fans - of both sides, it must be said - went through their routine in their own warm-up area. One rendition of the Fields of Athenry which seemed to go on for ever managed to drown out the sound of a marching pipe band - quite an achievement in the home of pipe bands.

There was no let-up. By the time referee Nigel Owens started the proceedings, thousands of vocal cords were suitably oiled and loosened.

Favourites Leinster went on the offensive from the start, subjecting Connacht's line to an assault akin to the opening hours of the battle of the Somme.

Wave after wave of Blues' players mounted a well-organised and orchestrated attack, and for 10 minutes completely denied possession to the men from the west. However, the green line held firm and refused to be breached.

Eventually, on 13 minutes, Tiernan O'Halloran ended the siege, latching on to a counter-attack and slicing through the Leinster defensive line to open Connacht's account. The crowd went wild, the die was cast and it became clear that a major upset was unfolding.

Pat Lam's mantra of always representing your people, your culture and yourself in the most positive fashion was manifesting itself before our eyes.

A second sub-plot was also unfolding when it became clear that this was Ireland versus Connacht.

Leinster, awash with international experience, was locked in battle with Connacht's few. The Blues began with 11 players who will travel to South Africa this week. The Greens had four. This spurred on Connacht's non-travelling players, who seemed to be saying "Hi Joe, look at me, I also have boots and an Irish passport" to the Ireland coach.

By the time Owens ended the conflict, the crowd were breathless, hardly able to raise a whisper. As Lam and his team mounted the podium to be crowned champions for the first time after playing in their first final, Springsteen's 'Glory Days' was echoing around Murrayfield.

One hoarse fan wondered if Lam could sing. "Sure he can, hasn't he done everything else for us?" came the reply.

Leinster fans, who were most gracious in defeat, remained standing to acknowledge the final chapter in a journey that had many more low moments than high, but had finally ended on the highest stage.

Across the globe, messages of congratulations were sent. Ronan O'Gara referred to Connacht as the new All Blacks. Perhaps it is more accurate to refer to them as the new Munster. Connacht have stolen the hearts of all sports fans in Ireland. They have attracted followers in their thousands from across the country in the same way as the Red Army did when they began their own European odyssey.

On Saturday, Ulster and some Munster fans wearing their own club jerseys went to Murrayfield, but they wore Connacht hats.

Like other great occasions in our history, like the GPO on Easter Sunday or Thomond Park in 1978 when Munster defeated the mighty All Blacks, what will you answer to the question: "An raibh tu i Murrayfield i 2016 ar an lá bródúil siúd do Chonnacht?

Irish Independent

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