IF it is hard to believe Munster were once the best team in Europe, then it’s even trickier to get your head around the fact that Connacht’s entire existence has passed by without even the sniff of a trophy.
So Saturday then was potentially the passing of the torch; the night when Munster’s light went out but when Connacht’s shone brighter than ever.
Never before had they qualified for the Champions Cup off their own back. But now they have and a journey to the Pro12 play-offs is practically, although not mathematically, assured, even though they are scanning the landscape and continuing to aim higher.
One hundred and twenty-eight years have passed since their journey began. And after all that time, rugby silverware has never once come home. Nor have they even reached a final.
So that’s the aim. And should they defeat Treviso away, and Glasgow at home, in their final two games of the season, then a home semi-final beckons and after the passion and noise generated by last Saturday’s win over Munster, who’d back against them then fulfilling that goal?
“We’re thrilled to be in this position,” Pat Lam, their coach said. “We’ve worked hard all year and have heard all about how we take too many risks. But there is a trust in the system. Our mentality is based around confidence and belief based on the fact that we’ve worked hard on developing our game-plan.
“So we have to forget the score and forget the crowd and just say, ‘if the chance is there then we need to go and execute’.”
Saturday felt like an execution not just of their beliefs but also of Munster’s hopes. Since their form started to dip – ironically after their first defeat to Connacht in November – they have produced plenty of fighting talk but have struggled desperately to back it up.
As far back as December, Mike Sherry said: “Our belief in our skills and our gameplan and our structures is there. We’ve shown we can do certain things, now we need to show we can do other things like score tries inside the 22.”
Yet they haven’t. Instead the Stade Francais disaster — when they were humiliated 27-7 by 14-men — followed, which prompted Alan Quinlan’s “borderline disgraceful” comments.
That criticism led to a reaction and a 134-point win over Stade the following week, the moment when their season should have started. Instead, they lost against the Ospreys when they should have won, lost in Glasgow when they could have won, and had chances against Cardiff and Leinster, but blew them.
Even on Saturday, it’s worth remembering they were 14-6 ahead at one stage in the first-half. Then a succession of 50/50 refereeing calls went against them. “You think things are in your control,” Anthony Foley, their coach, said. “But that is not always the case.”
Yet while there is absolutely no doubt that Munster were a little unlucky on Saturday, there is also no doubt that they are running out of excuses as well as time. Remember last week when Keith Earls said it was ‘win or bust’ for them in Galway? Those words were strikingly similar to the ‘do or die’ comments Conor Murray issued ahead of the derby against Leinster.
The most salient point of the entire season, though, was delivered by CJ Stander. “We [the players] said that we owe each other something, we owe each other respect and we owe the coaches respect. We need to play for each other going into the next few weeks.”
Those points were raised in January, the same week Foley said his team were “beating themselves”. Four months on, has anything changed? After blowing another decent lead on Saturday, the answer seems not. And yet fate is still in their own hands. Edinburgh, who are sixth, must visit Musgrave Park next week. Then the Scarlets. Two home wins would secure Champions Cup rugby next season, even if the play-offs seem a distant dream.
They aren’t for Connacht, though. Their day has finally come and so much of their upturn stems from Lam’s arrival in Galway three years ago. The first thing he heard then was talk of Connacht becoming the top province in Ireland within five years. Then he checked his history, 128 years playing the game, zero years being the best at it. So what’s changed? A plan, ‘Grassroots to Green Shirts’, was implemented where Connacht strove to challenge for the Pro12 and supply players to the Irish team.
Against Italy this year, they did just that, when Robbie Henshaw, Kieran Marmion, Finlay Bealham, Nathan White and Ultan Dillane saw out that victory. There and then, that vision of being Ireland’s number one side did not seem so outlandish.
“I came here,” Lam said, “because of the ‘Grassroots Green Shirts’ vision that was presented to me.
“I’m very much a vision man and then you have to put the structures in place and the process, and that’s not just the game, it’s everything.
“Then slowly all the pieces have fallen nicely. Willie Ruane (chief executive) was probably the biggest key that was missing here because when I came here the CEO (Tom Sears) didn’t last too much longer and we went a whole year without a CEO. Willie came in and has been able to manage all those other areas around our governance and so that allowed me to just focus on the team, and then we’re all aligned.
“So when you step back and look at the Connacht house, if you like, built on the Connacht way of doing things, which is important, that house is looking really strong. And it’s good because the way it is set up, one day each of us will be gone, and the next people can come in and they’ll work with a much more solid foundation of a house.”
The first bricks were laid in Europe. In 2013, Toulouse were defeated 16-14 in the Heineken Cup. If that showed what could be achieved in one-off games then Lam set about developing a squad who could deliver results on a more regular basis.
And this year they have. Henshaw, who is leaving for Leinster, may be their marquee name but he has barely featured in the Pro12 this season because of injury and international commitments. In his absence, Bundee Aki, Niyi Adeolokun and Matt Healy have matured into stars.
Saturday proved that while Munster were desperately unfortunate in terms of two game-changing moments – the Adeolokun try that was given and the Francis Saili try that wasn’t – their confidence is brittle. Their aura has slipped in the same year that Connacht’s has been built.