Tuesday 22 May 2018

Billy Keane: West lonesome for glory and Lam's posse will die with their boots on in Murrayfield Corral

Connacht captain John Muldoon and head coach Pat Lam will be hoping to their hands on the Pro12 trophy at Murryfield this evening Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Connacht captain John Muldoon and head coach Pat Lam will be hoping to their hands on the Pro12 trophy at Murryfield this evening Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Billy Keane

Billy Keane

There was a time not that long ago when Connacht was in danger of being annexed. Money men in the IRFU took the Hugh Hefner approach to the business of sport. It was all about the figures.

But The West woke up and there was a march on Dublin. Connacht was saved but downsized. But now we have a Connacht team who are the Playboys of the Western World.

There was a time even more recently when being sent to Connacht was seen as a demotion. Cromwell wasn't the problem either.

The resources weren't there to begin with and neither were the structures. Eric Elwood led by example. This was a quest and a vocation. It was more than survival this time. The quest was for excellence.

And there was a time when Connacht people didn't come to games in the great numbers we see now. You have to earn respect. Connacht play with abandon. Showbiz even, and they still win.

The emotion of the occasion may get to them though and it's up to Pat Lam to keep the pot bubbling but not boiling over.

Lam played against Munster in the 2000 European Cup final at Twickenham. The Munster fans were about 40,000 in number and they gave the team an incredible welcome onto the field.

So much so that Munster were downed by friendly fire. Munster hadn't been in the final before and were overcome by the occasion, as often happens to new teams.

Lam was outstanding that day. He was the cleverest player on the field. Connacht must learn to feed off the support and not get swallowed up by it.

I'm not too sure how many will travel over. There are few flights and the airlines, as usual, have jacked up the prices. It may be that the stadium will be filled by Connacht exiles and there are many. The emigration was never as bad in the east.

You'd buy a nice Paul Henry cottage for the price of an Edinburgh hotel room. It was the very same in Cardiff for the World Cup. From now on the organisers of all major tournaments must ensure there is a condition attached to the awarding of the competitions which protects the consumer against this kind of exploitation. I'm sure Dick Spring and his committee will ensure Ireland's World Cup bid is not derailed by greedy hotels.

Leinster may have won several championships and are described as being the more experienced team.

The facts are that not many from those winning teams will start this evening.

Isa Nacewa and Devin Toner dropped out this week. Devin will be a huge loss to Leinster. You could nearly be sure he would win his own ball and poach one or two from the opposition. Connacht will be ferociously committed. Last week they played cup rugby against Glasgow. I'm wondering though if Connacht would be better off running everything against Leinster, who slackened off in their efforts against Ulster at times.

Leo Cullen has won his share of big games with Leinster. His players like him enormously.

Leo's team looked beaten by half-time in the semi-final even though they did go in with a small lead.

Leinster played against the wind in the second half and Ulster were in control. The blue wagons were circled in red more often than a careless student's copy book.


But then Leinster won a hand-to-hand battle just in front of their own goals when they were down a man.

That was the turning point. And it reminded me of the day Leinster held out against Harlequins in The Stoop on the way to winning a Heineken Cup. The 10 or 12 minutes of hold- out rugby was the makings of the great Leinster team.

Jonathan Sexton was a big part of that success. He was immaculate in the Ulster game. Jonathan is at the end of a long season. He has been hit with more hidden charges than the taxpayer. Leinster depend too much on him.

Connacht were heroic against Glasgow and there were signs their hold-out would give the players a belief they could go all the way. It's our year and all that. There was talk too of the retrieval of a missing laptop by several Connacht players. Don't mess with The Repo Men .

The Connacht boys are very much together and the whole of Ireland, bar most of Leinster, will be in their corner. John Muldoon is the man who leads by example. Muldoon is as tough as hippo rind.

Bundee Aki is a Connacht cult figure. His very name lends itself to the role of the hero. It has that alliteration and western assonance needed for an epic poem. This man has given so much but it's my guess he is carrying an injury or two. Most of the players are at this time of the season.

The Pro12 is no longer "just the league". Gone are the days when teams could coast for a few rounds like a horse on the bridle. The whip has been out for months now. The winners will need to find the energy from deep within.

There has to be more than the professionalism of just doing the job for the money. You can buy winners but winning teams have to be built over time.

Connacht play for the people from a lonesome-for-glory west, who haven't won anything big for years, in hurling, or football, or rugby.

You can hear the hunger rumbles. The desire and the fire are there in abundance. So too are the skills.

Connacht have a great chance of bringing the cup over the Shannon.

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