Gerry Thornley: What does future hold for all-conquering Connacht?

Pro12 win may not be repeated but province already setting high targets for next season

Bundee Aki leads the singing with his Connacht teammates on the plane from to Knock from Edinburgh after their Guinness Pro 12 win against Leinster. Video: James Crombie / INPHO (courtesy Connacht Rugby)

 

Memories are made of this and therein, perhaps, lies the greatest legacy of Connacht’s stunning success. Their spectacular triumph, from Irish rugby’s poor relations to swashbuckling champions, transcended and seemingly even unified five counties, and also transcended all ages. Last weekend could reverberate for years.

Their homecoming was one befitting heroes, and that is what they are. For it was striking how many thousands of kids were there in replica jerseys, and the players posed endlessly for selfies and generously gave of their time. A certain brew don’t do perfect rugby days but nowhere is better than Galway. Helpfully the sun shone.

By the end, the Gods and the stars or whatever else seemed aligned in their favour. The marginal call for a forward pass by Johnny Sexton to Ben Te’o in the preamble to Zane Kirchner’s finish being ruled out reinforced the feeling. Even the controversial choice of Murrayfield as venue (in truth the league isn’t big enough yet for choosing a neutral venue so far in advance) suited Connacht, and Leinster were, curiously, a better fit than Ulster.

Having beaten Glasgow back to back, that Connacht saved their best, least inhibited, most effectively daring performance of all for their first ever final reflects well on how Pat Lam, the rest of the management staff and the leading players hit the right notes.

But then, by the end, they had also become a machine. And with destiny calling them, there was no stopping them.

But what next? What of the future? Where do Connacht go from here?

Uniqueness

If, in years to come, this was to prove a one-off, then it could conceivably become something of a monkey around the necks of future Connacht teams. It will certainly be hard to follow and, in a sense, last weekend might never be repeated, for any future triumph will never have the same uniqueness, any more than if Leicester City somehow replicated their triumph.

As Lam said, a club or province’s success cannot purely be measured in silverware, although as John Muldoon was quick to interject, it sure helps.

Lam has already stated that the target for next season is to retain their Pro12 title and at least reach the quarter-finals of the European Champions Cup. Those are typically lofty and ambitious targets by Connacht’s visionary man at the helm.

In truth, the odds are against Connacht retaining their title or becoming a major force in European rugby, but even if they were to back up this inaugural senior trophy by, say, reaching the playoffs of the Pro12 and the knockout stages of the Champions Cup, it would be quite an achievement.

It has been suggested, by Gordon D’Arcy in these pages amongst others, that last weekend’s final in Edinburgh may well have represented a unique opportunity which is not likely to come knocking again.

Robbie Henshaw is joining Leinster, although as he admitted to Today FM on Sunday the scale and enthusiasm of Sunday’s turnout made his departure hit home like never before, and even prompted him to say: “I may be back.”

The hugely influential Aly Muldowney is heading to Grenoble – a smart piece of business by Bernard Jackman – and that will also leave a void. AJ MacGinty, a one-season wonder, is relocating to Sale. George Naoupu, Fionn Carr, Jason Harris-Wright, Rodney Ah You, Ian Porter and Conor Finn are also moving on.

Most of all perhaps, their totemic and talismanic centre, their human wrecking ball and man of action, Bundee Aki, will take some keeping at the end of next season, for New Zealand, France and England are all liable to come calling.

But, in any case, a turnover is normal at the end of any season. And not only are new outhalf Marnitz Boshof, Conor Carey, Cian Kelleher and the prodigal Eoin Griffin coming aboard. Their rich conveyor belt from their academy will also see Rory Molony, James Connolly, Sean O’Brien, Shane Delahunt and Rory Parata become fully fledged pros.

Most of all, the man who had the vision and sold it to fellow Kiwis such as Aki, Tom McCartney and Jake Heenan, as well as his own squad, seems sure to be aboard for another two years, along with assistants Dave Ellis, Andre Bell and Jimmy Duffy.

They are in good hands.

Last Saturday’s triumph will also help their recruitment, not least in the kind of marquee back they will perhaps hope can fill the void left by the departure of Henshaw.

They also have a new breed of young player, along with a core of longer serving indigenous players, who now expect Connacht to be contenders and winners, and not just occasionally. And if, as Ronan O’Gara has suggested, Connacht are the new All Blacks, then perhaps they also have a fanbase which, remarkably, has made them the new Munster and the Sportsground the new Thomond Park.

Embolden

Aside from the wonderful memories, this team’s legacy may well be to embolden their fellow Irish provinces and the Ireland team on the upcoming tour to South Africa and beyond. Their Ireland team-mates cannot but be inspired by it. It may well filter through to Mayo, Galway, Roscommon, Sligo and even little Leitrim in the All-Ireland football championships, and Galway in the hurling.

Their greatest legacy though would be for it to herald a new era in the often troubled history of Connacht rugby, with an expanded Sportsground or alternative home to a proud new team and their expanding Green Army, and a squad who will be real contenders.

They don’t look like going away. gthornley@irishtimes.com

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