Connacht’s new-found confidence, both on and off the field, received the best fillip on Sunday with Leinster’s victory over Clermont Avergne guaranteeing Eric Elwood’s team Heineken Cup rugby for a second successive year.
The narrowest of victories after a heart-stopping final five minutes ensured Leinster will meet Ulster, who overcame Michael Bradley’s Edinburgh in Dublin on Saturday, in a first All-Ireland Heineken Cup final later this month.
“Heart-in-the-mouth stuff,” said Eric Elwood. “A great game of rugby between two great teams that thankfully finished in Leinster’s favour.
“Towards the end when Clermont looked to have scored, I must say my mind started racing towards the possibly of a Twickenham final without Leinster, and it was a huge sigh of relief at the end.
“Now we have the opportunity to compete once again the best club competition in the world. Everyone experienced the tears and the joy of this season’s Heineken Cup campaign, the great buzz it generated for Connacht Rugby and the community, and the wonderful journey we had. Now we get to experience that all over again and build on the momentum we have generated.”
As the coach, Elwood says he will keep pushing to get the best out of the team.
“It was a great experience last year to build both on and off the park and now we can continue to build on that momentum. We have new players coming in, young players who have already experienced cup rugby, and everybody wants to play in Europe. Certainly it is a huge attraction for the players we have and for players coming to the province.”
Now Connacht and the city can begin preparing for another roller-coaster ride in Europe’s elite competition, which, according to retiring CEO Gerry Kelly, will provide another huge boost for local economy.
“Heineken Cup rugby made a huge impact on the business community, particularly at an off-peak time of year,” Mr Kelly says.
It was estimated that Connacht’s three home fixtures generated up to €5 million for the local economy at a time of year when business is traditionally slow.
“The Heineken Cup provided the impetus for us to make positive changes here at Connacht Rugby, while the community and the crowds also got behind us. We hope to continue building on that positive impact for another year.”