Connacht’s win makes spirits soar on the western front
Galway throws the party of the year as triumphant team arrive home
The pot of gold at the end of the rainbow actually can’t be counted in euros, or even measured. Instead it could be seen in the streets of Edinburgh and the stands of Murrayfield, in Knock Airport and then on the streets of Galway and finally the Sportsground yesterday.
Connacht – champions of Ireland, Wales, Scotland and Italy no less – have awoken the west like never before after their band of brothers beat their historical big brothers from Leinster in Saturday’s historic Guinness Pro12 final.
An estimated Green Army of 8,000-plus had invaded Edinburgh, with at least 2,000 then welcoming the heroes home to Knock at around 1.15am yesterday morning for another raucous rendition of The Fields of Athenry, which Connacht supporters have rightly reclaimed as their own. There were bonfires on the drive to Galway to welcome home the heroes.
Lining the streets
“What makes the boys dig deep is the people we represent,” Pat Lam told the several thousand on the back pitch from a temporary stage. “We understand what we play for.” As ever striking all the right notes by name-checking Galway, Leitrim, Mayo, Roscommon and Sligo and signed off with a more few words in Irish. “Go raibh maith agat,” he said, before introducing every member of the squad. Well, all bar one or two who hadn’t lasted this particular pace.
Lam for Taoiseach indeed. Or then again, maybe Connacht’s warrior captain, “Mr Connacht himself”, John Muldoon. “The amount of messages, support, family members backing us, everyone who has supported us in the wind and rain over the years, this makes it all worthwhile,” said Muldoon. “See you all in September, we’ve a title to defend.”
Whatever the relatively modest prize money or take from Saturday’s gate receipts, the heroes came home to the kind of tumultuous welcome that will resonate for years to come.
Every dog has his day, never more so than in the year of the underdog.
You don’t need the biggest budget, nor a team brimful of internationals and star turns; not when you have a band of brothers with a willingness to buy into an ambitious gameplan and then a whirlwind momentum re-enforced by an adoring public. The fourth proud province of Ireland may have been last to dine at the banquet but that has only made them more voracious.
Being champions of the Pro12 can only enhance their status, and make them a more attractive option when hunting for players, while season ticket sales (already in excess of 4,000) will likely receive a further boost when the European Champions Cup draw is made in the end of June – for which they will be one of the top seeds.
The dust had scarcely settled on a thrilling, momentous and historic triumph than Lam was targeting a retention of their title and qualification from the group stages of the Champions Cup.
But this would be savoured too. “You always believe, of course you do. I said yesterday, you dream and you lift that trophy over your head every day out in the backyard,” said Muldoon on reaching the Holy Grail after 13 seasons.
“I’ve two brothers and we fought and we laughed and we did whatever and every day I might have been lifting the Liam MacCarthy Cup, which is a bit different, but nothing changes and I’m just delighted. You always believe, but when you’re going through tough days it’s always harder to believe.
“Look I’ve said it lots of times, I’ve walked in off the pitch a couple of times and said, ‘Right, that’s me done, I’m not staying here’. Unfortunately at times I felt we weren’t moving as quick as I wanted us to move. I felt that I needed a place to move but it’s where you’re from, it’s who you are and I saw lots of friends and family and neighbours out there, a lot of them aren’t rugby people but I’m delighted to see them here.
That Connacht used 46 players in their campaign underlines their new-found strength in depth, with academy players seamlessly slipping into the match-day teams. Lam also cited this statistic as proof that Connacht did not especially benefit from this being a World Cup year.
Be that as it may, all 46 were taken to Edinburgh, and when financial imperatives limited it to that number, Muldoon and the players had a whip around to pay for another four academy players who had been training with the squad.
“The fact that we’re not willing to leave the four lads behind, and the four lads are inside in the dressing-room and they deserve to be here as much as anybody else, and that shows the togetherness and what it means to everyone,” said Muldoon. “To me that sums up the group massively.
“I got emotional a couple of times. I thought I was done and then Eric came in, and that set me off again then. Look, I’ve said it for the last few weeks, there’s a lot of people who have put more into it than I have, and a lot of people are supporting Connacht rugby longer than me, and they’ll be proud tonight and they’ll enjoy this as much as we will.”