'The Pro12 Grand Final just led in lovely to the wedding'
The Big Interview: Ronan Loughney
It's amazing how much has changed at Connacht since Ronan Loughney made three replacement appearances in his debut season of 2005-06.
He witnessed the province finish off their campaign seven points adrift of the now defunct Border Reivers, in tenth place in the then Celtic League. Incidentally, Glasgow Warriors finished bottom of the table that season, and quite a lot has changed for them since too. But the Connacht story is surely more mesmeric.
And Loughney has been central to the narrative of a team that went from the brink of extinction themselves to Pro12 champions last season. It was the fairytale ending to their brilliant campaign in 2015-16. And just to increase the momentous feel of what was occurring, it all coincided with Loughney's marriage.
But whatever happens this year, Loughney will always have the memories to last him forever. A season when not a whole lot went wrong, and plenty came together flawlessly.
"I grew up with my dad bringing me to games when I was 14 or 15. Back then the idea of Connacht winning a game or two was a big thing. We are in a different place now," says Loughney.
"Even last year, the idea of winning the final wasn't on our radar at the start of the season. The whole place is on an upward trend and it's such an exciting time to be involved.
"For me, there is such an amount of pride playing for Connacht. I grew up dreaming about it. It's a great time to be involved. There are a lot of guys who would have been there through a lot of the tough times who I got to celebrate with after winning the Pro12.
"The likes of Swifty, Johnny O'Connor, Brett Wilkinson, who would be recently retired but would have seen the tougher times. . . I am just very proud and grateful to be a part of it."
But Loughney didn't get to put his feet up and watch the drama unfold ahead of him. When Denis Buckley got injured towards the end of last season, Loughney was thrust into the starting 15 and he had to guide Connacht to glory.
With 183 Connacht appearances under his belt, Loughney is the second most experienced head in the Connacht squad.
And, the one-time capped Ireland international needed to use all his nous in pressure-filled games against Glasgow, and especially the Pro12 Grand Final against Leinster.
"I started cramping with about ten minutes to go in the final and I could barely run," he recalls. "It was a fast-paced game and a warm day in Edinburgh. From not having started as many games, it took its toll on my calves.
"When I came off I knew we were ahead but I had seen down through the years when we were ahead and had let it slip. We weren't doing that last season as much but still when you are off the pitch, you have more time to think about it.
"With about five minutes to go, I was sitting on the sideline thinking 'we are actually going to do this, we are actually going to win it, there is not going to be enough time'. It is a hard thing to come to a realisation of.
"Before it we were thinking about the system and process. At the back of your head you imagine it but you don't indulge in it. You don't want to be disappointed. But that five minutes, even up to now it is difficult to come to terms with. The actual fact of winning it was a massive achievement for the club and for the whole squad.
"I don't think I could handle talking to anyone at the time. I remember sitting on the sideline, trying to not over-think it and praying that we would go okay and Leinster wouldn't get an opportunity to get back into it.
"I remember running onto the pitch afterwards but parts of it are a blur.
"There was just so much emotion but it was an incredible experience. And I am so grateful that I got to share it with the lads."
When Connacht arrived back in Galway, the players finally got a chance to celebrate with their families, friends and all of the loyal Connacht supporters.
But for Loughney the intrigue didn't end there, and the following week he was in Kerry, where he wed his fiancée Finn Dillon, a native of Tralee.
"They were both emotional and special events for me. Getting married is a different kind of experience. The Pro12 final just led in lovely to the wedding," he says.
"Coming down off one high, trying to get things ready for the wedding and everything worked out great. It all ran smoothly.
"We went to Kerry, and we waited around for the week after but there was a friend's wedding the following week - Conor O'Loughlin. And then we went on the honeymoon to Croatia. It was really memorable and a great finish to the season for me."
Loughney has played in both of Connacht's game so far this season, andafter back-to-back defeats against Glasgow Warriors and Ospreys he knows Connacht need to bounce back now. And with players returning to fitness he says competition is key.
"Denis (Buckley) and I are vying for that same spot. Whether it's him or me, both of us are going to play a role. There are guys coming through there too," he says.
"We just need to make the coaches' decision as difficult as possible to pick the team. And that's something we have had in recent years - serious competition for different positions. It drives players on and makes them play better and that's what we want and need to get us to the next level."