Tuesday 20 March 2018

Browne relishing final chance to crown his breakthrough season

Browne: Aiming for big finish (Seb Daly/Sportsfile)
Browne: Aiming for big finish (Seb Daly/Sportsfile)
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

It is a special week to be a Connacht player, but no one is feeling it more than the natives in the dressing-room.

Most of them once stood on the terraces at the Sportsground during the days when packed houses seemed a world away, they came through the Academy when long losing streaks were the norm and have been part of the process of turning this squad into title contenders.

On Saturday, they will get their reward as they take to the Murrayfield pitch to face Leinster.

For all that Pat Lam has brought a way of playing from New Zealand, made some integral overseas signings and established a set of values that are familiar from the All Blacks, he has been careful to keep a sense of connection to the five counties the players represent.

A native of Renmore, just down the road from the Sportsground, Andrew Browne is the second member of his family to don the green jersey as he follows in the footsteps of his brother Damian, who also played for Leinster during his professional career.

And, while he reckons having a local connection is important, the second-row believes the imports have bought into the way Connacht do things. "Bundee Aki has come in and, Jesus, he could become the mayor of Galway pretty soon the way people are loving him," he said.

"The likes of him and Tom McCartney; Finlay Bealham came from Australia originally and they've come in and adopted the Connacht mantra, so to speak.

"It's very important that they identify with the community in Galway, with Connacht as a province, and I think it's really worked this year. We're a close-knit side, we do a lot together and I think it pays off on the pitch."

Confidence is high in the Connacht squad after their second-place finish and victory over Glasgow Warriors in last weekend's semi-final.

Although a title tilt seemed unlikely at the outset of the season, they now fully believe they can go all the way and Browne says he first realised that something special was afoot when Lam's side beat Munster in Limerick back in November.

"It would have to be Thomond Park away, wouldn't it?" he said.

"We've had a lot of bad away days over the years and actually that was the first thing that came to my mind when that final whistle went last Saturday.

"I mean, for some reason, all the bad games came into my mind and then it was like, 'Look where we are now'. That was something really special.

"I think Munster away, going down to Thomond Park, Fortress Thomond Park, and winning there was an incredible achievement and one of the highlights of the season.

"Last Saturday was the best moment I've ever had here. It was very special. But, it's not over. We've a massive job to do this Saturday."

Nothing focused Connacht's minds like a review of Leinster's intense display in beating Ulster on Friday night and, in particular, their pack effort.

"It's full of quality internationals. They're not there for no reason. It's a massive challenge for us as a pack," Browne said. "We've stepped up in the last few weeks. We were facing a quality pack against Glasgow as well. We're quite confident in that area. We've a good set-piece. Again, it's a challenge we look forward to."

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