The incredible rise of Connacht

Date published: May 26 2016

Connacht are just one step away from crowning their best ever season with the PRO12 title as they prepare to face Leinster this Saturday.

It’s been quite a campaign for the men from Galway as they sat at the summit for a big chunk of the campaign and have now made the final.

Granted there was a small amount of chatter about how they could capitalise on rival teams missing several players to the Rugby World Cup in the early-season, but few would have envisaged such a consistent showing that has been wonderful for the PRO12 and the game as a whole.

Similarities with Leicester City have been mooted as their fairytale campaign saw them lift the Premier League title and in many respects they do ring true.

The first is that both were repeatedly written off throughout the season but continued to produce the goods, while the second is there is a collective steel to the team, with a dollop of class. Leicester have Vardy and Mahrez, Connacht boast Aki and Healy.

Up front this is a pack that has more than held its own against their rivals while there were shrewd buys, not least in USA international fly-half AJ MacGinty, who has continued his excellent Rugby World Cup form in the green jersey of Connacht. He will be a loss next season.

One player going nowhere though is Bundee Aki, who has become the lynchpin of Pat Lam’s game-plan.

Always a pleasure to watch whilst with Counties Manukau and the Chiefs, the inside centre could well have been wearing an All Black jersey this June had he not opted to head to Europe in 2014. Aki could instead claim an Ireland shirt when he becomes eligible in 2017, with that date surely in Joe Schmidt’s diary.

Other players who have impressed include Tom McCartney, Finlay Bealham, Ultan Dillane, Quinn Roux, Tiernan O’Halloran and Niyi Adeolokun, with currently injured Nathan White and Denis Buckley but as mentioned it has been a complete squad effort that has created this success.

Everything truly is looking up at the Sportsground and it’s quite a turnaround after financial problems were reported back in early 2014.

Thankfully their improved form on the field – they have finished tenth, seventh and most recently second in the league table – has been mirrored off it as plans are now afoot to either rebuild their home venue or move to somewhere near, which could be decided this summer.

Clearly the demand is there from the locals following recent attendances as under Lam and those behind the scenes, Connacht have finally burst out from the shadows as being Ireland’s fourth province.

The question now is can they become number one in 2015/16 this Saturday.

by Adam Kyriacou