The Connacht dream lives on

Connacht dream lives
21 May 2016; Ultan Dillane, right, and Shane O’Leary of Connacht celebrate their victory during the Guinness PRO12. Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

Outstanding victories for Leinster and Connacht at the weekend have created a mouth-watering prospect for this week’s Pro12 final

By Phil Rice

Ulster’s recent run of comprehensive victories came to a shuddering halt at the RDS last Friday, when a classy performance from Leinster deservedly produced a 30- 18 victory. Ulster captain, Rory Best was clearly frustrated when the Dublin side yet again prevented his team from reaching a big final.

“Every year we think we have improved enough to answer the questions asked of us at this stage but yet again we have fallen short,” he said. He added,” It doesn’t get any easier to take as this year we really thought we were in a good place to go on and do it.

Connacht dream lives
20 May 2016; Rory Best of Ulster during the Guinness PRO12 Play-off match between Leinster and Ulster at the RDS Arena in Dublin. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

“We felt the belief of recent weeks would drive us through but it wasn’t to be. It’s very disappointing as we felt we had a big game in us, but we’ll be back again.” He hinted at relinquishing the captaincy for next season, “I’m not sure if I’ll be back as captain.

“We’ll have to reassess. I’ll speak to Les (Kiss) at the end of the season and make a decision.” For Leinster it was a further step forward in a season that appeared to be going nowhere but has finished strongly and now offers the ultimate Pro12 prize.

Total commitment

The back-row of, man of the match Jamie Heaslip, Rhys Ruddock and Jordi Murphy were outstanding. They closed down the threat from the Ulster halfbacks Ruan Pienaar and Paddy Jackson, who had dominated the game between the two sides just three weeks previously.

Connacht dream lives
20 May 2016; Jonathan Sexton of Leinster during the Guinness PRO12 Play-off match between Leinster and Ulster at the RDS Arena in Dublin. Photo by Seb Daly/Sportsfile

Johnny Sexton answered his critics, who have been calling for Paddy Jackson to replace him as Irish fly-half, with a commanding performance. His tactical kicking was exceptional, while his place kicking was flawless.

Jackson’s day will undoubtedly come but for the time being Sexton has re-established himself as the nation’s best 10. Leinster will approach this week’s final as favourites but who will discount Connacht? Yet again they performed with total commitment and focus that the reigning champions Glasgow could not answer.

The turnaround in the province’s performances this season has been remarkable. Their previous best finish in the league had been seventh yet they played with complete belief when it really mattered on Saturday.

Enthusiasm

Glasgow chose to play with the strong wind at their backs in the first half, but Connacht proceeded to dominate the game from the kick-off. And the Scottish team made precious few incursions into the Connacht half throughout the first period.

Connacht dream lives
21 May 2016; Sean Lamont and Leone Nakarawa, right, of Glasgow Warriors with Jake Heenan of Connacht during the Guinness PRO12 Play-off match between Connacht and Glasgow Warriors at the Sportsground in Galway. Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

The second half began with a concerted effort by Glasgow to establish themselves in the game but despite an early try, Connacht re-established their superiority. That prevented Glasgow from leaving their 22 for most of the second half. Leinster will take the threat posed by Connacht lightly at their peril.

But Leinster and Leo Cullen are too experienced to under-estimate the Westerners. The 7-6 defeat they suffered in Galway in January is still fresh in the memory and they will know that Pat Lam and his team will be ‘full on’ when the teams meet at Murrayfield this Saturday.

There will be no hiding place and it will take at least a performance of last Saturdays standard from Cullen’s men to produce the right result. Just as with Leicester City in the Premiership this year, the neutral observers will be firmly on the side of Connacht.

Whatever happens this has been a memorable season for Lam’s team. They have played with a smile on their faces and brought a refreshing enthusiasm to the game that has won them many friends and admirers.

This Saturday’s match promises to be special. It is unfortunate it is being played in Edinburgh as it would surely have packed out the Aviva Stadium. But then even last week most people predicted that Glasgow would be in the final. This Connacht team have confounded all the experts this season and who would bet against them going all the way?

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