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Pat Lam targets more trophy success after Connacht's 'massive' victory

By Ruaidhri O'Connor

Published 30/05/2016

Champions: Connacht celebrate their PRO12 final victory at Murrayfield on Saturday
Champions: Connacht celebrate their PRO12 final victory at Murrayfield on Saturday

Every one of the provinces' breakthrough days has a moment that will linger long in the memory. Whether it's Peter Stringer's dart and dive in 2006, Simon Mason's enduring accuracy in 1999, Brian O'Driscoll's drop-goal in 2009, they are frozen in time.

For the Connacht fans still coming down from the high of Saturday's win over Leinster at Murrayfield, there is a large menu from which they can choose their moment to cherish.

There are the three try-of-the-season contenders from their electric back-three, Ultan Dillane's monstrous surge up the left wing, Tom McCartney leaving Luke Fitzgerald for dead or the sight of Bundee Aki smashing Johnny Sexton having lined him up from a mile out.

It wasn't European success, but that didn't matter. A first major trophy in 131 years deserves celebration, particularly when it is won in such breathtaking style. And when Connacht can do this in a final against an experienced team packed with international class, it is hard not to wonder what they can do next, even if they are losing three key members of their starting XV this summer.

Pat Lam was already targeting a successful title defence and the last eight of the Champions Cup for his team and it would be foolish to discount the Samoan's ambitions. He is not to be underestimated.

Yet, it was important to enjoy this day after three years of hard work and decades of struggle.

For most of their history, Connacht have been an afterthought in Irish rugby and their struggles for recognition are well-documented. On Saturday, they bullied their way on to the centre stage and they enjoyed the attention.

"This is massive," Lam said of the success. "This is right up there as one of the highlights of certainly my coaching career, because of the amount of work that's had to go into it." In every area of the game except the scrum, Connacht were the better team. In the absence of Devin Toner, Leinster's lineout crumbled, while their line-speed was nowhere near what they needed it to be.

All season, they have relied on their league-leading defence, but they missed 31 tackles, six of which came from their player of the year Ben Te'o, who was a shadow of the dominant figure seen for most of this season.

Instead, it was the man who will replace the Kiwi at the RDS who shone. Robbie Henshaw was outstanding on both sides of the ball and, for all that Lam says players will come and go, the Athlone native will leave a big hole to fill. They coped without him for much of the season, but come the biggest day, he delivered.

So too did the back three of Tiernan O'Halloran, Niyi Adeolokun and Matt Healy who all outplayed the Ireland squad members opposite them, taking brilliant tries in different ways. If Joe Schmidt called on any of them for South Africa, they wouldn't let him down.

O'Halloran struck first, capitalising on a moment's hesitation from Rob Kearney to put the foot down and score, before Adeolokun collected his own chip brilliantly to make it 12-0.

AJ MacGinty extended the lead after Dillane's charge and, while Sexton pulled a penalty back after half-time, the waves kept coming as the out-half somehow stopped Tom McCartney short of the line after he had side-stepped Jack McGrath and Luke Fitzgerald.

They didn't have to wait much longer, however, as Healy raced on to a chip from the excellent MacGinty to score and, while Leinster rallied and Sean Cronin crossed for a try, they never got close enough to truly trouble the new champions.

Belfast Telegraph

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