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'We've come this far, we'll do it our way': Connacht's unbelievable day in the sun

Aly Muldowney was in the heart of everything at Murrayfield.

BELIEF, TRUST and outright stubbornness. These are the fundamentals on which Connacht’s astounding Guinness Pro12 grand final victory were built on.

The accepted logic in across all team sports is that you can’t just breeze into a final as an underdog and look comfortable.

Every once in a while the less fancied side might sneak a win, but by scrapping for every inch and riding a whole lot of luck. More often than not, the team that’s been to the final stage six times before and has three European Cups to their name will have the know-how and temperament to navigate their way past their plucky up-and-coming neighbours.

On 28 May 2016 the wild men from the west gleefully tore up all those blueprints.

Finlay Bealham and Aly Muldowney celebrate as Tiernan OÕHalloran scores the opening try Source: James Crombie/INPHO

If they were fazed by the occasion or the pressure of the Guinness Pro12 Grand Final in the slightest, Connacht never showed it on the field.

Off it was a slightly different story though. As the bagpipes and hordes with green flags greeted them off the team bus, the squad couldn’t possibly pretend they were playing just another game.

“When we arrived and got off the bus,” says Aly Muldowney, the second row at the heart of so much at Murrayfield on that momentous May day, “that was the biggest moment.

“A lot of things dawned on us about how much it meant to everyone. The amount of people who were there and the amount of noise that was made was pretty spectacular.

There was so much support, so much noise. It felt almost like a home game with the amount of noise we had. It was unreal.

“We talked about it like: ‘well, we’ve come this far, there’s no point going into our shells. If we’re going to lose, we’ll lose. If we win, we’ll win. But we’ll do it our way, the way we like to play!’

“All year we’ve watched games back on TV and everyone’s going: ‘ah they should kick more, they shouldn’t play so much.’ And we’re like: ‘why? It’s working for us!’”

It’s only ‘naive’ when you lose. Win playing as if you don’t fear the consequences and it’s a jaw-dropping masterclass.

Aly Muldowney celebrates with Shane Delahunt Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Head coach Pat Lam set the ideal tone for his side approaching the climax of a season that was already unforgettable. The Samoan publicly declared the week pressure-free for his side, “a celebration” of all the hard work that had been done to drag Connacht from strugglers to standard-bearers.

Within the group though, there was pressure. It existed because there was belief that the methods which had defeated reigning champions Glasgow over the course of two wet weekends in Galway, could be applied just as well to a Leinster side full of Ireland internationals.

Muldowney was a fulcrum of the Connacht style. In Murrayfield he made 19 passes – the same number as the entire starting Leinster pack – to take playmaking pressure off AJ MacGinty and help shift the point of contact wide in an incredibly fluid fashion.

Muldowney credits a youth playing basketball for making him resemble Brodie Retallick for his distribution abilities. However, he also details a long road to perfect the 2 – 4 -2 forward formation that makes Connacht so difficult to defend against.

Aly Muldowney

Pat was always adamant whoever’s playing 5 would do that role.

“We started doing it a couple of years ago. We didn’t get a lot of press about it for a year, but we just got better trialling and improving it every week, trying new things.

“Things worked, things didn’t: stuff like we were passing out the back so early that defences were finding it easy to read. So we practiced attacking the line before we passed. Fixing their defence, manipulating their defence… it was just repeating it over and over again so we can get better at it.”

Until… click!

“We were so comfortable in that 2 -4 -2 and we know that one-off runners against a team like Leinster — who have real good tacklers and are really good at the breakdown — you give them a chance and do one-off runners into them all day, they will tackle you hard, they will turn you over.

It was all about how we can manipulate the defence.

“The more passes we get in, the more manipulation we can do. We wanted to get the ball to people like Bundee (Aki), Niyi (Adeolokun) and Tiernan (O’Halloran) in more space.”

That space was used to maximum effect by Matt Healy, O’Halloran and Adeolokun. While Muldowney’s passing skills weren’t directly involved in the try-scoring moves, every weapon put to use by Connacht to pull Leinster apart twice in the first half to open up a 15 – 0 lead before the sides went to the changing rooms.

Again, history tells us that should be the point at which the inexperienced underdogs begin to panic and struggle. Leading with the finish line in sight is a completely different type of pressure. Yet Connacht are a very different Irish success story. The second half was a demonstration of their attitude and work ethic more than their innovative attack, yet it was no less impressive.

Frustrating

“They (Leinster) obviously knew at that point in the game (second half) not to give us the ball, so they were keeping possession as well.

“They’re a well-drilled team so it was difficult to get the ball back off them. So we were just trying to stay connected on D, and take the opportunities when we can.

“They starved us of possession a bit which is probably the way you’d want to play against us. The last thing you want to do is kick loose ball to us. Then our back three can run it back at them and we’ll keep possession.

“It was frustrating, but when we got the ball, we proved again that we attack well. AJ got a good kick through for Matt Healy. We always want to pose a threat when we had the ball.

“It was all about not going into our shells.”

Muldowney’s second half brought a more traditional workload for a lock then, and he remembers burying his shoulder into the grindstone for the final 10 minutes – the last of his energy resources used to just keep Leinster in their own half.

10 points up with a scrum under Leinster’s posts, it was time for Connacht to do more than believe. They knew they were the champions of Ireland, Wales, Scotland and Italy.

Aly Muldowney celebrates with his son Arlan Muldowney with his son Adrian in Murrayfield. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

It was a magical moment. But soon it was difficult to escape the reality that the group had played its final game together. Robbie Henshaw moved to Leinster, MacGinty had to head for England and Muldowney had agreed a move to play under Bernard Jackman in Grenoble.

Results have been difficult to come by in the Top14 this season and the club are in a scrap at the wrong end of the division. Muldowney is happy with the familiar style and shape that Grenoble play though, and he is looking forward to some “eight-pointers” against fellow strugglers like Brive, Stade Francais and Pau before spring comes around.

Most importantly, life is good in the French Alps and he has the people who he sought out in the crowd after the whistle finally blew that day in Murrayfield.

“I went and got my three boys and they did the lap of honour with me, which was really good. Then I went into the stands to find my dad my wife Samantha.

“It was nice because in the stands, just behind my dad, Dan McFarland (former Connacht forwards coach) was there.

“I know he left, but he had a massive impact on Connacht as well. That was nice.”

Aly Muldowney and John Muldoon celebrate Source: James Crombie/INPHO

That’s an element that has always existed in the often small Connacht rugby community. The setup has also been short on finance, but strong on family. You can leave, but the departees will always be part of the province.

Analysis: Connacht’s 2-4-2 a symbol of their collective drive under Lam

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About the author:

Sean Farrell

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