Connacht make history with first Pro 12 final

Connacht 16

Glasgow 11

It has been a season of all seasons for Connacht, and hopes are high there is more to come on Saturday.

Pat Lam's groundbreaking squad, having beaten the defending champions Glasgow back-to-back, are now through to their first Guinness Pro 12 final in the competition's 14 year history. It has been an incredible season that has defied odds - a fairy tale yes - and now it deserves the ultimate reward.

"Just a magnificent day for the west of Ireland," said Lam. "Extremely privileged and blessed to be part of this group and represent the west of Ireland. Before the game I said to the boys, this is the process of winning the game, this is how we are going to go about doing it, but it means nothing, just channel what this province means to you.

"I highlighted all the boys who were local, there were eight them, and highlighted the final- the biggest game - and just channel it into the way you play, and I think you saw that - have no fear, have a crack. It wasn't perfect we know that, but there was some good rugby, and some frustrating things in there too, but all in all, it's not just a great day for the west of Ireland, but for Ireland too, to have an all-Ireland final, it's going to be great."

Thus as Connacht Rugby farewelled their Sportsground season in the most significant way they could, they now head to their new 'home' ground in the Scottish capital and meet Leinster in an all-Ireland final in Edinburgh on Saturday.

"We worked hard to get the semi-final, and now we are in the final. We never talked about getting into the final, we've just talked about winning it. Now there's a one-in two-chance of winning it. We are under no illusions. It's a final now and it's the top team, the team that won it more times than anyone else.

" Their key guys - Johnny Sexton, Jamie Heaslip - all their big guys, they were superb [against Ulster]. If we try to match them individually, we'll get blown off the park. Everything is going to come down to our team structures in attack and defence. "

Lam will be looking for more of the same against the Leinster big boys. A Connacht side on a mission stymied Glasgow's muscle power, drove forward menacingly when given the opportunity, and the thunderous tackles, epitomised by the Man of the Match and a heavily strapped Bundee Aki, who earlier in the week was on crutches after a training-ground knee injury - frustrated Gregor Townsend's team of champions.

"I have to acknowledge our forward pack. When I was doing the pre-match interview on the sidelines, the Glasgow pack ran past me - they are massive, big men, and it highlighted that we really took it to the forward pack," said Lam." We put pressure in the line-out, pressure in the scrum -when you consider Tom McCartney had to go loosehead - and then the breakdown and physicality, it sums up how special this team is."

With Muldoon leading the charge, and always perfect at the restarts, Ali Muldowney and Ultane Dillane dominant in the line-out and making hard yards in the middle of the park, and McCartney dogged at the breakdown, the Glasgow pack, led by try scorer Leone Nakarewa, got little change out of Connacht. And with Glasgow losing both Finn Russell and Zander Fagerson in an attempted tackle on the irrepressible Aki in the opening minute, the game was not going the way of the champions.

Against the wind, Connacht took a 10-3 half time lead. Having an Eoin McKeon try denied by TMO for an earlier knock-on by Aki, Connacht opened with a three-pointer from Aj MacGinty in the 23rd minute, only for Glasgow to respond with a Duncan Weir penalty two minutes later. It took a smart grubber from Aki to unlock the Glasgow defence - Niyi Adeolokun gathering the bouncing ball, and with some clever footwork, he evaded three defenders, claiming the opening try just before the break.

Glasgow fired the second half with a rampaging attack, and were eventually rewarded when Nakarawa, having been denied by sterling defence in the first half, crashed over, Weir's conversion wide to draw them within two points.

Connacht, however, regained their domination, and although Matt Healy was a couple of yards short, MacGinty potted another three-pointer when Glasgow, who had lived on the edge throughout, were pinged for offside.

It was all Connacht thereafter. A third MacGinty penalty in the 64th minute proved enough in the end. Adeolokun was denied a second try and Connacht lost replacement prop Rodney Ah You for a tense final eight minutes, but Connacht's will to win prevailed.

With a six-day turnaround to the final in Murrayfield, Connacht's celebrations were once again put on hold - bar the traditional Bundee Aki-led Haka in the team dressing room.

"No celebration, " said Pat Lam. "it switched straight away. There is no doubt we are all happy to be in the final, but we've now switched.

"John [Muldoon] speaks well.We don't say no drinking, just make good decisions, good choices, and make my selection hard. You have to front up Monday ready to go because if guys don't do the Monday/Tuesday training, then it's very unlikely they will be in the selection unless they have a lot of credit in the bank."

On a day when the west of Ireland lost one of its great hurlers, Joe McDonagh, famous for his rendition of The West's Awake at Croke Park in 1980, there was no better choice of celebratory song for the Sportsground faithful.

"Especially poignant," said captain John Muldoon. "In an area where people follow all sports, not just rugby fans out there, but soccer, hurling, and football, we are pulling out of a small pool, and it is sad for Joe and his family - a poignant day that the West's Awake rang through a rugby stadium."

Connacht: T O'Halloran; N Adeolokun, R Henshaw, B Aki, M Healy; AJ MacGinty, K Marmion; R Loughney, T McCartney, F Bealham; U Dillane, A Muldowney; E McKeon, J Heenan, J Muldoon (capt ). Replacements: John Cooney for Marmion (59 ), A Browne for Dillane (60 ), S O'Brien for McKeon (60 ), John Cooney for Marmion (60 ), D Heffernan for Loughney (64 ), P Robb for Aki (71 ).

Glasgow: S Hogg; T Seymour, M Bennett, P Horne, S Lamont; F Russell, H Pyrgos; G Reid, F Brown, Z Fagerson; L Nakarawa, J Gray (capt ); R Wilson, S Favaro, J Strauss. Replacements: D Rae for Fagerson and D Weir for Russell (1m ), A Ashe for Favaro (28 ), P MacArthur for Brown (59 ), R Grant for Rae (59 ), T Naiyaravoro for Horne (60 ), Rae for Reid (62 ),T Swinson for Strauss (66 ),G Hart for Pyrgos (71 ).

Referee: M Mitrea (Italy )


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