Connacht Showed In 2016 They Know How To Complete A Fairytale


The DHL Stormers’ triumph in last year’s inaugural Vodacom United Rugby Championship was described as a fairytale, but not even what Steven Kitshoff’s men did last June matches what John Muldoon’s Connacht did back in 2016.

Connacht visit the home of last season’s fairytale winners on Saturday in the semifinal round of the 2022/23 edition of the competition and throughout the buildup week, and even before that as Connacht were picking up winning momentum, their momentous achievement of winning what was then the Guinness PRO12 has been part of the buildup narrative.

Even way back near the start of the season, when the fourth-ranked Irish province (they were long placed last when it came to the funding they got from the Ireland national body) had just started to turn the corner after a poor start, their captain Jack Carty had said in the media that he saw shades of the spirit of 2016 coming through.

The focus on 2016 is understandable, for it was regarded by many observers after that momentous day when they beat mighty Leinster 20-10 in the Murrayfield final as a victory for sporting values at a time when money had started to underpin so much in top-level sport.
Connacht topped the log that year but they did so as the team ranked 10th when it came to financial capability. They did it with the help of players who had slipped through the net in other provinces but came good under the coaching of Pat Lam.

Does that sound a bit like the Stormers last year? There are similarities, for sure. The Cape franchise’s financial woes had been well publicised and their coach John Dobson, like Lam did back in 2016, turned several players who arrived with average reputations into top performers. Manie Libbok was an example of a player who was deemed surplus to requirements elsewhere but under Dobson’s watch, he became a Springbok.

But where the Stormers' case differs from the Connacht one is that Western Province, the union that the franchise represents, has always been a recognised powerhouse in rugby. WP, with 39 titles, have won the Currie Cup more times than any other province, and while before last year the Stormers had never won an international trophy, they had frequently challenged during the years South Africa competed in Super Rugby.

Connacht came from nowhere and was almost shut down in 2002/2003 by decree of the Ireland Rugby Football Union, who wondered about the feasibility of continuing with the remotely populated western province in the big league. It didn’t feel to the IRFU that Connacht had the talent the bigger three provinces, Leinster, Ulster and Munster, had to draw on.

When they played in the 2016 final it was the first time they had ever contested any final and had never really come close to competing for a trophy. Even the season before that, 2014/2015, Lam’s first in charge, they’d finished in the bottom half of the PRO12 as the building blocks for the later success were being put in place.

During their fight for survival during those dark and uncertain times for Connacht rugby, it was realised that a coherent plan was needed. But according to Carty, it was that PRO12 triumph seven years ago that really connected Connacht Rugby with the local community.

“You would walk around Galway 10 years ago, and it would have been Leinster, Munster and Ulster jerseys that people were wearing, whereas now it’s just Connacht jerseys everywhere,” said the flyhalf in an interview with the Irish media last month.

Carty, capped 11 times for Ireland, said he’d seen a real transformation both on and off the field from when he made his debut for the province way back in 2012, with the greater competitiveness of the Connacht team on the field being spurred by the drive to modernisation off it. There’s been a major makeover at their home venue, the Sportsground, where a 4G pitch has been laid, and construction on a new North Stand and High Performance Centre is in the pipeline.

“Honestly, the gym when I started off, you wouldn’t have swung a cat in it. They had to split the backs in half and split the forwards in three because it was so small,” he recalled.

“Seeing where it came from then to where it is now, people maybe forget the journey and where we have got to. We have obviously got all these new facilities coming now as well. When I think of it in that regard, it’s obviously something I reflect on with a lot of pride. Demographically, you are up against it compared to other places, so you can’t make drastic changes straight away and expect to see the results in a year.

“This is the accumulation of work for 15-20 years where you have to be incredibly intelligent and smart in how you do things. The off-the-pitch team deserve a massive amount of credit for what the place is now.”

Indeed, yet for all the changes and improvements made off the field, it was that momentous day in Edinburgh in late May 2016 that provided Connacht with its greatest growth spurt as the team captained by John Muldoon, who had been a loyal servant to Connacht throughout his career, scored a well deserved victory.

Even though they'd done well in the league season, Connacht started as rank underdogs but took the game by the throat from the kick-off, scoring three tries in a 10 point victory that was more comprehensive than that margin might suggest. Leinster scored a consolation try near the end when the result was already beyond doubt.

It was a result that reverberated around the rugby world and even current Connacht wing Mack Hansen, now a folk hero in Galway but at the time living in Canberra in his native Australia, heard about it.

“What I recall was that Leicester City had won the English Premier League and everyone was likening their achievement to that,” said Hansen.

The Connacht win was watched by what at that stage was a record crowd for a PRO12 final but the real party started when Connacht got home to an open bus parade that is still remembered with great fondness by the people of Galway. They’re hoping they can do the same just over two weeks from now, with the sense from people involved with Connacht that the stars are aligning again as they did seven years ago being a warning for the Stormers and for that matter Leinster and Munster.