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Chris Henry: Connacht's fairytale in 2016 piled on trophy misery at Ulster

Direct battle: Connacht’s Kieran Marmion and John Cooney of Ulster
Direct battle: Connacht’s Kieran Marmion and John Cooney of Ulster
John Muldoon
Chris Henry

By Chris Henry

In all its many guises, the PRO14 has never witnessed a fairytale like Connacht's title win of 2016, and I'm sure Leinster felt there wasn't a soul outside of blue blood country that wanted them to win that day in Murrayfield.

Well, in truth, they had me, and I'm sure plenty of other Ulster players secretly hoping they'd add another piece of silverware to their already heaving trophy cabinet.

As great a story as it was when the westerners upset the apple-cart, it felt horrendous to watch a side make such light work of lifting a trophy.

That year, when we were once again beaten by Leinster, marked a decade since the last Ulster side to win a trophy and it felt like Connacht's one unbelievable season made light of those struggles to break through the glass ceiling.

As much respect as I have for guys like John Muldoon, seeing them lifting the trophy made all our near-misses seem to taste all the more bitter.

How could we say we were learning, getting closer and closer, when Pat Lam turned them from perennial strugglers to champions in just 36 months?

From an organisation stand-point, I'm sure there are those who'd favour the greater consistency we showed, all those big games ensuring fans kept piling through the turnstiles in their tens of thousands year on year.

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As a player, though, it's a no-brainer. I'd swap every one of those near-misses for a few seasons of mediocrity and the unbelievable high of ending one year with a medal dangling from your neck.

Around that time, and especially in the years since, the success of Lam's side during that memorable year brought back an argument we thought we'd put to bed - were Ulster Ireland's fourth province?

It was fair. For all our play-off places and European knockout rugby, we hadn't - and still haven't - managed to match Connacht's sole success in recent times.

Looking at it both from inside and now outside the Ulster camp, I think Ulster have played better rugby more consistently than Connacht again this season, in a deeper half of the PRO14 to boot.

But should the visitors come out on top on Saturday, that'll all be forgotten, much like all our seasons of higher league finishes were put firmly in the shadows by their unforgettable title success of 2016.

Having already beaten Dan McFarland's men twice this season, including a first triumph in Belfast for some 58 years, I'm sure Connacht will come north this weekend with no fear, that one win in October counting for much more than some three score years worth of poor results.

The battles I'm most looking forward to watching are the half-backs, where fascinating head-to-heads will be played out against the backdrop of World Cup selection.

For me, Jack Carty has been right there among the best No.10s in the league this season.

He's an exciting player and one who probably would have got much more than the three short cameos he was handed in the Six Nations had Ireland got off to a stronger start in the competition.

He'll need no introduction to Ulster's scrum-half, his good mate from their Sportsground days John Cooney, who was in the same boat when it came to chances to impress in green this spring.

He's the man to make the hosts tick and Kieran Marmion, his opposite number for Connacht, is similarly key.

Unless Joey Carbery gets left behind, at most two of those three will be boarding the plane to Japan and for someone at least this weekend is a last chance to impress Joe Schmidt before the wider squad gathers in the summer.

For now, though, it's that hunt for silverware on everybody's mind. Should Ulster prevail, and I expect them to, we now know for sure that it'll be away to Glasgow in the last four.

It would take a Leinster in the Champions Cup quarter-final level of performance from Ulster to win there but we've already seen that it's possible, and in a semi-final, who knows?

What a way to draw a close to the Ulster careers of Rory Best and Darren Cave that would be, the latter of whom was fantastic again at the weekend against Leinster.

Maybe not a fairytale to quite rival Connacht in 2016, but some story nonetheless.

Belfast Telegraph

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