Connacht’s first title predicted by mystic but earned with guts

Skipper John Muldoon holds the Pro12 trophy aloft after Connacht's 20-10 win at BT Murrayfield. Picture: SNS Group
Skipper John Muldoon holds the Pro12 trophy aloft after Connacht's 20-10 win at BT Murrayfield. Picture: SNS Group
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There have been many parallels drawn with the Leicester City story but they do a disservice to the visible progress Connacht have made in recent years, culminating in Saturday’s magnificent Guinness Pro12 final victory at BT Murrayfield.

At the start of the season quite a few people, including Glasgow Warriors coach Gregor Townsend, were tipping the improving west of Ireland province to be contenders, and their odds were considerably shorter than 5,000-1. Skipper John Muldoon revealed that his wife’s fortune teller was equally confident, predicting they would get to the final at least.

Connacht have had a bit of fun with the comparisons with Claudio Ranieri’s soccer sensations but the captain stressed in his euphoric post-match press conference that there was always a much bigger chance of them winning their competition than Leicester. The days of Connacht scraping around the basement are long gone with improving league positions under coach Pat Lam.

And yet, from the island of storytellers it remains an incredible tale in its own right as the province which has lived in the shadow of Leinster, Munster and Ulster all its history finally lifted a major trophy.

Muldoon’s career doesn’t span the entire 131-year history of Connacht rugby, though it sometimes feels like it might, but there was a similar feel to Al Kellock last year as the 33-year-old back-rower hoisted the trophy aloft. He was a young pro when the IRFU flirted with shutting the team down and battled on through many a barren season, always coming back for more.

The spirit of Connacht was illustrated when Muldoon revealed that players had chipped in with their own cash to ensure four academy players who had trained but not taken the field during the season made the trip to Edinburgh after the club drew a financial line on bringing the 46 players who had made appearances.

It all seems pre-destined now but in the lead-up to the game it seemed as if the stars were aligning for Leinster. The four-time champions had the experience of the big occasion and appeared to have timed their run to perfection, hitting impressive form towards the end of the season and in their semi-final win over Ulster.

In front of a vocal crowd of 34,450 – a record for a Pro12 final – the favourites started the game strongly too but, as they have all season, Connacht stood up strong before unleashing a thrilling counter punch with their trademark wide, expansive, ball-in-hand approach and raced to a 15-0 half-time lead through tries by full-back Tiernan O’Halloran and right wing Niyi Adeolokun.

When the excellent young left wing Matt Healy pounced on AJ MacGinty’s lovely threaded grubber they were well on their way but a Sean Cronin riposte and a plethora of injuries had Connacht holding on. But hold on they did.

“We all watch sport because we know on any given day anyone can win,” said Muldoon. “That’s the beauty of sport. Sport can be beautiful but it can also be cruel. I suppose in the back of our minds coming here today we’ve thought, we’ve had a great season but it could be a cruel end.

“We wanted to play the way we have all season, that was the main thing me and Pat [Lam] were hammering into the guys – ‘don’t fall back into old habits’.

“We have a gameplan and stick to it wholeheartedly. And it’s won us the championship.”

Muldoon admitted there had been times in his career when he considered chucking it with Connacht but always sensed something like this could happen. “You always believe. From when I was a kid out in the backyard with my two brothers you always dream of lifting trophies over your head. Nothing changes,” he said.

“I’m just delighted. You always believe but when you are going through tough times it’s harder to believe. I’ve walked in off the pitch many times and thought, right, that’s me done, I’m not staying here.

“Unfortunately at times I felt we weren’t moving as quickly as I’d like us to and felt I needed to move. But it’s where you’re from and who you are.

“I saw friends, family and neighbours out there in the crowd, many of whom aren’t really rugby people, and it was lovely to see them.

“Ultimately deep down you believe it’s coming and you can be part of it. I’m just chuffed to be here.”