We have bet against them all season and we have been wrong all season. Connacht made a mug of all the naysayers once more at Murrayfield yesterday by beating the best team in the short history of the Pro12.
In line with all the best fairy tales, their Cinderella story had the happiest of endings with veteran skipper John Muldoon lifting the Guinness Pro12 Cup at the finale of a fascinating match that Connacht dominated. The exception was the final 15 minutes when fatigue and injuries threatened to trip up them with the finishing line in sight.
“My heart rate is still up there,” said an exhausted man-of-the-match Muldoon. “It’s absolutely phenomenal. You dream of days like this but it definitely hasn’t sunk in yet.
“I am delighted for the lads. We spoke all week about wanting to go out and perform and I think we did that. That was the most pleasing aspect of it, the fact that we didn’t go into our shells except maybe a little bit at the start of the second half. It’s phenomenal, I’m delighted for everyone… it’s a good day!”
This final should at least make Glasgow feel a little better about themselves because the Dublin club barely left a fingerprint at the crime scene. They milked a couple of scrum penalties in the first half and eventually got off the mark thanks to the same. Leinster briefly threatened a fightback late in the game but Sean Cronin’s try was all they had to show for it and even then injuries meant Connacht were briefly reduced to 14 men. Anyway, the men from Galway were in no mood to ruin a season’s-worth of hard work with a ten-minute hiccup.
Connacht soaked up the pressure, regularly throwing someone in the 12 or 13 channel out of the defensive line to stymie the Leinster attack, and they hit hard on the counter. AJ MacGinty looked the most composed fly-half on the pitch and when they got their hands on the ball Connacht played an entirely different game to the predictable stodge served up by their opposition.
The men form Galway varied the point and the angle of attack so one minute Muldoon was gunning for Jonny Sexton, the next minute the ball was moved wide with fast hands to buy the electric winger Niyi Adeolokun two inches of space, which is one inch more than he needs.
The Nigerian-born speedster scored a try against Glasgow in the semi-final and he grabbed another in yesterday’s final, a brilliant little chip and chase that left the defenders flailing. The winger revelled in the wide open spaces afforded by Murrayfield’s wide pitch and Leinster simply had no answer to his scorching pace.
Nor could the Dubliners lay a hand on Connacht full-back Tieran O’Halloran, who proved another thorn in Leinster’s side. He opened the scoring with a brilliantly taken try, making a muppet of his opposite number Rob Kearney in the process, as he cut inside the Leinster full-back and stretched his legs to the line after just 16 minutes of action. His early try in addition to Adeoloukun’s effort and MacGinty’s penalty saw Connacht go into the half-time shed with a handy 15-0 lead.
Leinster flexed their muscles after the break and Sexton got them on the board two minutes after the re-start but Connacht would have scored had scrum-half Kieran Marmion been able to get the ball away to Adeolokun when breaking from deep and Tom McCartney will still be arguing that he did when the hooker showed an amazing turn of speed to come close to grabbing Connacht’s third try.
The green clad Galway fans hadn’t long to wait. Connacht showed admirable patience in attack and, just when it looked like Leinster’s defence would hold out, MacGinty threaded a kick behind the line with winger Matt Healy first to the ball.
The match entered the final quarter with Leinster trailing 20-3 and the Dubliners threw caution to the wind.
Replacement full-back Zane Kirchner thought he had scored, only to be pulled back for a forward pass. With O’Halloran on the floor Leinster made the numbers work in their favour and replacement Cronin finally got over the Connacht line on 66 minutes.
Leinster dominated the final exchanges but Connacht had worked far too hard for far too long to let slip the silverware at this late stage and, not for the first time this season, the underdog had his day.
connacht: Tries: O’Halloran, Adeolokun, Healy. Con: MacGinty. Pen: MacGinty.
leinster: Try: S Cronin. Con: Sexton. Pen: Sexton.
connacht: O’Halloran, Adeolokun, Henshaw, Aki, Healy; MacGinty, Marmion (J Cooney 60/Robb 66); Loughney, McCartney (JP Cooney 60), Bealham, Dillane (Browne 62), Muldowney, McKeon (O’Brien 40), Heenan, Muldoon (Capt).
leinster: R Kearney (Kirchner 60), D Kearney (Madigan 75), Ringrose, Te’o, Fitzgerald; Sexton, Reddan; McGrath, Strauss (S Cronin 41), Ross (Furlong 41), Molony (J Cronin), M Kearney (Triggs 16), Ruddock, Murphy, Heaslip (Capt).
referee: N Owens (WRU).