Dare to dream as Connacht edge closer to seasonal silverware

It has already been a phenomenal season, but Connacht will certainly have a bigger pep in their step this week after securing a first Pro 12 home semi-final.

Pat Lam's vision, which continues to drive players and coaching staff both on and off the pitch, took a massive leap forward on Saturday in the Galway Sportsground.

On paper Glasgow should have walked this final round fixture with the quality of players at their disposal, most notably Leone Nakarawa, who was, as always, influential, outhalf Finn Russell, who was not at his best, and of course fullback Stuart Hogg, the most threatening of the backs.

But Connacht are now a difference beast. Relishing their improved skill set, stable in the set piece, and utterly determined in defence, Connacht, backed by the sell-out crowd, edged this intriguing encounter by 14-7 to seal home advantage in the semi-final.

But for the hiccup in Treviso, Connacht would have completed the league proper as deserved leaders. Instead Leinster took that honour courtesy of points difference.

However that will not matter an iota if Connacht claim the ultimate silverware, and in a season of so many watershed moments, Lam is now readying his squad for another "biggest" challenge in two weeks' time.

The defending champions are the visitors again - having finished in third place behind Connacht and ahead of Ulster - on Saturday May 21 at 6.30pm. Records show the home team has never lost at this semi-final stage, and Lam knows for that to continue, Connacht need to up the preparation and performance levels yet again.

"I have challenged the boys, everything we have done all season is about our preparation, and this has to go up another level. The beauty is that it is home in the Sportsground and it's going to be another great day for all our Connacht fans.

"A lot of it is going to be clarity, making sure we have a full tank of petrol and letting the excitement flow into our clear game plan.

"Massive for us, massive for our fans, and what I am most proud is that we were overwhelming underdogs against the form team of 22 internationals," the Connacht coach said.

"This was all about showing our desire, hunger, character and culture - that was the one ingredient missing against Treviso, who wanted it more, so I asked for it and they delivered it in spades.

"When it has really counted - against Munster, Leinster, this game, and even against Ulster when we were defending with 13 men - these guys will step up. Absolutely proud.

"Everyone was expecting the result to go the other way - so I am really proud of the way we beat them. Glasgow are a phenomenal team and they are going to come back stronger, no doubt ."

With the annual Connacht awards held immediately after the fixture, in which Bundee Aki was the big winner, Lam gave his squad three days off before they returned this week. It also gave several players time to recover, particularly the three props - Finlay Bealham, who was replaced after just two minutes, loosehead Ronan Loughney, and replacements Rodney Ah You and JP Cooney - the later for 10 minutes for HIA, during which time there were uncontested scrums and Connacht were down a player.

"Losing Finlay was massive, then Rodney, and then JP, while Tom moved into loosehead, and yet the scrum didn't budge, and it was wonderful to bounce back in a game like this when we needed it."

Man of the Match Marmion

Glasgow had looked the sharper in the opening 15 minutes but were unable to make it count, not helped by out of sorts Scottish outhalf Finn Russell who also missed an early penalty kick. However, once Connacht got to grips with the dominant lock Leone Nakarawa in the loose, and stymied Glasgow's best efforts, they gained momentum and confidence. From their first penalty after 16 minutes, captain John Muldoon secured the line-out, man of the match Kieran Marmion found Aj MacGinty, and from a half break, he fed Aki who rode two tacklers, touching down at the upright. MacGinty, who played a pivotal role in both attack and defence, added the conversion for a 7-0 lead.

Connacht, with their sleeves rolled up, grabbed the foothold with MacGinty, Ultan Dillane, Sean O'Brien, Aly Muldowney and Muldoon all putting in big hits.

However Glasgow made the better second half start, and were rewarded with a couple of penalties which resulted in prop Gordon Reid breaking from a maul to cross, with Russell adding the extras. But with Connacht back down the pitch within minutes, Glasgow's tight-head Sila Puafisi was redcarded for leading with his head on Marmion after ref Davis went to the TMO, and the momentum was clearly with the home side. Chances went abegging until the 60th minute when Shane O'Leary, having replaced MacGinty, produced the perfect cross-field kick. Tiernan O'Halloran, celebrating his 100th cap, prevailed over Scottish full back Hogg to claim the winning try, with O'Leary converting.

Despite being down a man while Cooney was off the field, Connacht survived some late Glasgow attacks, winning a vital penalty at the death to secure a vital home semi-final.

The hallmark of so many games this season, Connacht held out against the odds to give the 7,786 home support a real glimpse of what the future can hold in Pat Lam's reign.

CONNACHT: T O’Halloran; N Adeolokun, R Henshaw, B Aki, M Healy; A MacGinty, K Marmion; R Loughney, T McCartney, F Bealham, U Dillane, A Muldowney, S O’Brien, J Heenan, J Muldoon (c ). Replacements: R Ah You for Bealham (3m ), JP Cooney for Ah You (52m ), S O’Leary for McGinty (54m ), D Heffernan for Loughney (56m ), E McKeon for O’Brien (62m ), J Cooney for Marmion (67m ), Q Roux for Dillane (73m ),


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