From fan to player, Browne revelling in Pro 12 adventure

BY MATT CASSIDY

From being a Connacht diehard to pulling on the green jersey for his debut against Cardiff Blues in April 2007, Andrew Browne has known more lows than highs in his long association with his native province, and the second row-cum-flanker could be forgiven that this weekend's trip to Edinburgh to face Leinster in the Guinness Pro 12's grand final is all a dream.

With a big smile, an accessory which seems to be permanently etched on the faces of Connacht players and indeed the fans' faces these days, the Renmore man says those tough days at the office were not too far from his thoughts after last Saturday's momentous semi-final victory over reigning league champions Glasgow Warriors.

"That was actually the first thing that came to my mind when that final whistle went last Saturday. For some reason, all the bad games came flowing into my mind and then it was 'Look where we are now'. From being a supporter first, I've been coming to the Sportsground for I don't know how long and last Saturday was the best moment I've ever had here," says Browne.

The Galwegians man played the final 20 minutes of the clash at the Sportsground last weekend, replacing Ultan Dillane. Yet despite the fierce competition for places this season in the pack's engine room, Browne's good form has been rewarded with the majority of his 17 caps this term coming from a starting berth, and the lock believes the fight for two slots among six players is driving standards.

"When you talk about competitiveness in the second row this year, the growth Ultan has shown has been incredible. Aly Muldowney has done extremely well this year, leading the lineout, being a leader around the pitch. It's been very competitive with Quinn Roux there also. Unfortunately, Ben Marshall has had a bit of a disrupted season with injury and Danny Qualter is there as well, but you have six quality second rows who are pushing each other and I think that pays off on the pitch at game time. It's a great problem for Pat, to have six quality second rows that he can choose from."

Aside from the thrilling brand of rugby and improvement of skill levels, Browne points out that the team spirit and willingness to buy into the Connacht identity in the camp has been crucial in province's rise.

"The lads that have come in, the likes of Bundee Aki - he could become mayor of Galway soon the way people are looking at him - and Tom McCartney and Finlay Bealham who came from New Zealand and Australia originally, they've come in and adopted the Connacht mantra. It's very important for us to identify with the community, Galway, Connacht as a province, and I think it has really worked this year. We're a very close knit side. We do a lot together and I think it pays off on the pitch."

It has been a fairy tale season to date for the team who was once known as the 'Cinderella Province' but Browne is under no illusions that Leinster will be pitching up in Scotland's capital as willing defeated participants in Connacht's final act of glory especially up front. "It's a quality pack. It's full of quality internationals. They're not there for no reason. It's a massive challenge for us as a pack. But it's a challenge we'll look forward and something we'll relish."

As with all the Connacht squad, Browne's family will be making the trip to Murrayfield. Amongst the Browne clan will be elder brother Damian who has represented both Connacht and Leinster, winning the Pro 12 title with the eastern province in 2013. However, Browne is in doubt what colours his brother will be nailing to the mast come kick-off at 5.30pm on Saturday. "It's actually quite a special game for Damian, I suppose, as he has played for both Connacht and Leinster. Damian has been to a lot of clubs but Connacht is still his home. I'm sure even having played for Leinster, he will be supporting us this Saturday."

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