By planes, trains, and automobiles they came. Places like Belfast airport and Larne ferry port have probably never had it so good as thousands availed of the northern transport services as well-known travel paths had been booked out earlier in the week. By hook or by crook Connacht’s clan made it to Edinburgh, and by God the journey was worth it.
Wandering around the streets of the old town last Saturday, you could have been mistaken Scotland’s capital for Eyre Square or Grafton Street in Dublin such was the amount of the green and blue shirts basking in the delightful sunshine outside the many pubs and restaurants that Edinburgh has to offer; the Irish invasion was in full flow.
Strolling towards Murrayfield it was clear that green jerseys outnumbered the blue. The thought process was, perhaps, Leinster’s crowd had already descended on Scotland’s rugby castle and that Connacht fans were taking their time to enjoy Guinness PRO12 final day. After all, it was our first final in 131 years and Leinster’s eighth since 2009. As we entered the east stand at Murrayfield, contrary to our previous beliefs, a sea of green was already present.
The game and atmosphere were thrilling. Excitement was engendered anytime Connacht had possession and when Tiernan O’Halloran crossed the whitewash green fans exploded into delight. The Fields of Athenry was being sung loud and proud and when Niyi Adeolokun chipped and fought his way for a second try the fans started to dream. Bundee Aki drew probably the loudest roar of the day as he smashed Jonny Sexton in two which pretty much summed up the team’s commitment to the cause.
A 15-0 lead at the break had us in states of delirium. However, there was a nagging feeling of caution as Connacht had been here before and lost, most recently in Grenoble where they eventually succumbed.
The teams came back out and The Fields of Athenry was struck up again. Sexton closed the gap with a penalty and that nagging doubt started to grow before AJ MacGinty’s delicate chip was collected by the magnificent Matt Healy for the try. Cue pandemonium.
But when ex-Connacht man Sean Cronin went over for a try with 14 minutes left, excitement turned to anxiety as Leinster’s replacements began to take effect. Yet Connacht fans were not found wanting as they increased the noise levels, cheering every act of defiance as Leinster began to turn the screw. When Connacht secured a penalty to take them deep into opposition territory, the joy within the clan was palpable.
As the Connacht forwards ran down the clock we were on our feet, roaring the team forward and counting down the seconds. The clock went into the red and Leinster launched one last attack but Athlone hero Robbie Henshaw, in his last act in a green jersey, carried the ball into touch and it was over.
John Muldoon held aloft the trophy and the team went on a well-deserved lap of honour to say thank you to the supporters as The Fields of Athenry was belted out for one last glorious rendition.