Connacht coach Pat Lam believes there is much more to come from his young squad after celebrating the New Year with a 24-16 victory over Munster at the Galway Sportsground.
Keen to keep his current squad together amid talks of Robbie Henshaw's departure, Lam says his players are only just beginning to reap rewards for the province.
"There is no doubt there are a lot of guys in the squad we want to keep because they are a great bunch of guys. They are working hard, and when we talk about the vision and you look at the ages of some of these guys, I believe this whole group can go on and do amazing things for Connacht Rugby."
There have been glimpses of that burgeoning talent over the last few years, but on New Year’s Day it was altogether different - a competitive and confident collective that Lam describes as the Connacht culture.
It is that culture - defined as relationships - which Lam believes propelled Connacht over the line, epitomised by the final five minutes during which the home side defended their lines like demons to prevent Munster scoring a try and grabbing a losing bonus point.
“Look how many games that we have been either behind or close and we came back when people thought we were dead and buried.
“I always said when you play rugby and when you get down to it, you have to know who you are playing for - if you don’t, you won’t give everything - and you have to know who you are playing with - you don’t want to let your mates down.
“That is effectively what team sport is about - get that and it helps the motivation.”
Off the field it has manifested itself as a team of players who enjoy each others’ company and importantly have welcomed newcomers, particularly the latest trio of New Zealanders who were at the forefront of Connacht’s post-match celebrations in front of 7745 fans.
“ Our defence has been pretty good all year, but in these derby games, it went up another level and that defines your culture.”
One significant player against Munster was a newcomer a couple of years ago. While Robbie Henshaw was named man of the match, it could have easily have gone to a raft of players, not least captain John Muldoon or Aly Muldowney. A late starter to rugby, the former Exeter lock has grabbed his opportunities this year, and against Munster he towered in the line-out, made the hard yards, and claimed Connacht’s third try in the 60th minute with Darragh Leader’s conversion extending Connacht’s lead to two scores.
If that score fueled Connacht’s success, it was Kieran Marmion’s 29th minute try that turned the contest. Facing into the wind and rain, Munster had capitalised - two Ian Keatley penalties and a Peter O’Mahoney try from a maul had them 13 - 0 ahead. But a try from the top drawer proved pivotal when Henshaw burst through the centre to secure Craig Ronaldson’s precision chip, and, having evaded two defenders, found Marmion in support who finished off. Ronaldson converted, ensuring Connacht turned around at the break eight points in arrears after Keatley posted a third penalty.
Connacht’s new midfield partnership relished this contest with Bundee Aki a livewire in attack, and Henshaw and those outside him reveling in the space and quick ball. The two combined for Connacht’s second try to bring play up to the Munster line before Ronaldson, who had to depart immediately for concussion protocols, dived over after the breakdown and Leader struck the conversion perfectly to reduce the arrears to two points.
With the pack out-muscling Munster despite the best efforts of wily campaigner Paul O’Connell, Connacht reaped the reward. Replacement outhalf Miah Nikora struck a penalty on 55 minutes to put Connacht in front for the first time, before Marmion, another man of the match contender, showed his Ireland credentials with a superb blindside break which resulted in Muldowney’s 60th minute crowning try.
As winning becomes a habit, it takes a special victory to set both fans and players alight. After a tough Christmas campaign that included two narrow defeats on the road to Leinster and Ulster, the prized scalp of Munster will be one to remember.
Importantly it was performance based on an effective defence and a cutting edge out wide. Lam’s stats reveal only seven “ineffective tackles” by seven individuals, for the first time only one “system error”, and only four defensive penalties. Tom McCartney, followed by Denis Buckley and George Naoupu top the “quality tackle” count.
A fully deserved victory. Connacht and their growing army will hope this is the springboard for more wins over their interprovincial rivals.
Connacht: M Muliaina (D McSharry 73 ); D Leader, R Henshaw, B Aki, D Poolman; C Ronaldson (M Nikora 43-65 ) (D McSharry 61-69 ), K Marmion; D Buckley, T McCartney (D Heffernan 17-25 ), R Ah You (F Bealham 51 ); Q Roux (U Dillane 70 ), A Muldowney; J Muldoon capt, W Faloon (D Heffernan 70 ), E McKeon (G Naoupu 56 ).
Munster: S Zebo; A Conway (I Dineen 65 ), P Howard, JJ Hanrahan, R O'Mahony; I Keatley, D Williams; J Ryan (E Guinazu 73 ), D Casey (K O'Byrne h-t, E Guinazu 57-62 ), BJ Botha (S Archer 73 ); B Holland (Dave O'Callaghan 69 ), P O'Connell; P O'Mahony (capt ), T O'Donnell, CJ Stander (P Butler 69 ).
Referee: D Wilkinson (Ulster ).