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''Fields of Athenry' in the Kingspan, I'm told it's pretty special and doesn't happen often'

Connacht coach Andy Friend will let his squad enjoy the historic win over Ulster, but the province is intent on continuing their rise.

ANDY FRIEND ISN’T easily shaken out of his quiet, steady pose, but the Australian admitted there was palpable emotion just beneath the surface as the gravity of the result set in.

Colby Fainga'a celebrates Colby Fainga'a celebrates on his way to the changing room. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Friday night marked the long-awaited end of Connacht’s losing run in Belfast, a 58-year stretch dating back to a 3-6 success in November 1960.

The outpouring of joy stretched across the generations; from young homegrown stars such as Sean O’Brien and Jack Carty, adopted sons like Paul Boyle or Bundee Aki, stalwarts behind the scenes like Nigel Carolan all the way up to club president Mossy Moran.

Friend had spent the week, and a portion of the post-match press conference, insisting that 58 years of hurt had not figured in his pre-match preparation or team-talk. When the result was in the books, though, there was no more keeping the landmark off the agenda.

“I think that will probably hit us,” nodded the head coach when the historical magnitude of the 15-22 win was put to him.

“We had our president, Mossy, in the changing room and he said: ’60 years we’ve not won here’. I’m super proud’ You can see how much it matters.

When you have young players playing and a new coach coming in, you probably don’t appreciate until after it’s happened how much it does mean to people.”

It means a heck of a lot, especially to the handful of loyal Westerners who made the trek north-east in the hope of witnessing a professional-era first. Even with a 14-point lead, a red card and time going against Ulster, those fans couldn’t truly revel in the match until Bundee Aki stole possession to put the visitors 8-22 up.

Matt Healy and Bundee Aki celebrate a late try Source: James Crombie/INPHO

“You hear Connacht fans singing the ‘Fields of Athenry’ in the Kingspan, I’m told it’s pretty special and doesn’t happen often. Maybe it’s 60 years ago.

“They’re the moments you remember. I’m just proud of the way these blokes played.”

In particular, Friend singled his captain out for praise. From the off, it seemed as though Jarrad Butler believed that the regular rhythm of a rugby game wasn’t going to cut it. So the potential for 3, 6, 9 scoreboard pressure was cast aside in favour of an enthralling bout of scrums leading to a penalty try.

When he wasn’t topping the tackle charts (25), Butler backed his pack time and again – even if it may have been advisable to start pointing for the posts after Matty Rea was sent off.

That brash confidence wouldn’t have been possible with a supreme pack effort. So often Finlay Bealham and Denis Buckley, quite rightly, come in for high praise because of their ball-playing ability. On Friday they were old school props, hungrily scrummaging the night away.

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“It’s always good to have a good day at the office mate,” said Bealham, “we put a big emphasis in our forward play, so to have a good day is pretty satisfying. But we need to get better.”

“Pretty sweet getting a win up here. I’m delighted. It wasn’t perfect out there, we didn’t play to our full potential, but it just shows the belief we have in our systems.

Matt Healy and the team Source: James Crombie/INPHO

“It shows that if things don’t go right, we all stand and fight for each other and we’re all in the trenches. Proud of the boys and the coaches.”

Though Bealham shrugs the notion off, there are clear comparisons here for Connacht to draw with another historical landmark. Three years ago they went to Thomond Park having not succeeded in beating their neighbours to the south at the venue in 29 long years.

That ghost was exorcised with a thrilling 12-18 win – with Aki again dotting down the crucial score – and set the Westerners on course for a momentous title-winning season.

If silverware is not possible for this version of Connacht quite yet, Friend can certainly take pride in what has already been a lifting of spirits around the Sportsground. 

“As a coach you like to see people enjoy it,” said Friend, “like to see people achieve things and put smiles on peoples’ faces. Because there’s plenty of times when you don’t do that you do the opposite.

“When those moments come your way, enjoy it. You probably only get 24 hours to enjoy it.”

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About the author:

Sean Farrell

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