At the end of this very week twelve months ago, Connacht issued a mighty declaration of intent. The unbreakable defiance behind their victory in Galway over Ireland’s most decorated team gave everyone due notice that the Guinness PRO12 title would be going where it had never gone before.
Leinster, edged out 7-6 by Kieran Marmion’s converted try, made the cross-country journey back to Dublin this time last year knowing that the Final Series would probably present them with the chance of avenging the narrowest of defeats.
What nobody outside Connacht could have imagined then was that Leinster would not get that close again, nor anywhere near it. The re-match would take place soon enough and when it did, two months later on neutral territory in Edinburgh, Pat Lam’s underdogs romped home by the length of Princes Street.
In doing so, the perennial strugglers had put a silver crown on arguably the greatest achievement by an Irish province since Donal Canniffe’s Munster took on Ian Kirkpatrick’s All Blacks in Limerick almost 40 years ago and saw them off the premises in a pointless state of mind, beaten 12-0.
Connacht under Pat Lam’s tactical direction and John Muldoon’s on-field generalship had done more, far more than merely prove that every dog has its day. They won the title in style, enhancing the Guinness PRO12’s capacity for delivering finals noted for the exhilarating brand of their rugby.
What’s more, they won countless new admirers throughout the four nations involved in the tournament with their ability to keep the ball in hand and pass their way out of the tightest corner.
They repeatedly took on the very best and left them all behind. Over the final few weeks of the campaign, Muldoon’s squad followed the win over Leinster by beating Munster (35-14) and Glasgow Warriors, overcoming the defending champions twice in a fortnight – 14-7 in the last match of the regular season, 16-11 in the play-off semi-final.
And then they proceeded to show they could win even more emphatically beyond the Sportsground in Galway. Leinster, triple champions of Europe, discovered that to their cost, overwhelmed 3-1 on tries before more than 30,000 at BT Murrayfield in a final that will be talked about as long as the game is played.
Connacht had conquered all four summits within the Guinness PRO12 – champions of all-Ireland, all-Italy, all-Scotland and all-Wales. And yet not that long ago, in the dark days of 2003 when a financial crisis enveloped the Irish domestic game, their very existence as a professional entity had been in jeopardy.
More than 2,000 supporters travelled across Ireland to protest outside IRFU headquarters in Dublin. Their mobilisation along with rumblings of the Irish Players’ Union taking strike action forced the Union to re-think and grant Connacht a stay of execution.
That made their success in the year of the underdog all the more inspiring. They did for the Guinness PRO12 what Leicester City had done a couple of weeks earlier for English football, each finishing ten points clear at the top of their respective tables.
There was one striking difference. Leicester may have fallen out of the English Premier League but they did so through the trap door of relegation, not because any one wanted to put them out of business.
Every single one of Connacht’s sizeable native contingent had paid their dues, none more so than the back row forward who symbolised their rise from bottom to top – Muldoon. A proud Portumna man and a Galwegian from tip to toe, he had been there from the very start through thick and thin, somehow resisting the option of heading for greener pastures.
“You always believe,” he said straight after Connacht’s coronation. “But when you’re going through dark days, it’s hard to keep believing. There have been times when I’ve come off the pitch and thought: ‘That’s me done.’
“You think about moving on and then you think where you are from. You stay and start believing again. Sport can be beautiful but it can also be cruel, very cruel.”
Connacht’s fate in the Champions’ Cup this season brought Muldoon another reminder of that cruelty, not that he needed it. They won four of their six matches, including beating Wasps and Toulouse at home, only to miss qualifying for the quarter-finals by an infuriatingly narrow margin.
Despite winning one game fewer, Toulouse got there instead by virtue of denying Lam’s team a losing bonus point in the final pool match before Christmas. It would only have taken one goal for the roles to have been reversed but nobody could deny that the champions had done the Guinness PRO12 proud.
Winning the title brought due international recognition for the likes of Marmion, Ultan Dillane, Finlay Bealham, Tiernan O’Halloran, Matt Healy as well as Niyi (‘Nee’) Adeolokun. And thereby hangs a tale.
None of the Connacht crew had a journey to match the Nigerian wing’s, from Ibadan to Dublin with his family at the age of nine. He played all sorts of football codes at Synge Street Christian Brothers School whose alumni include the late broadcaster Eamonn Andrews, Eddie Jordan of F1 fame and Liam Whelan, one of the ‘Busby Babes’ who lost his life in the Manchester United air disaster at Munich in 1958.
Adeolokun made Leinster’s under-19 squad but not for long. That might have been that had it not been for Tony Smeeth, an Englishman with a formidable reputation for nurturing talent as Director of Rugby at Trinity College in Dublin.
“Nee’s’ schoolteacher rang me up and said: ‘Leinster don’t want him but this guy is the fastest thing I’ve ever seen in Ireland,” Smeeth told me. “Then I saw him. He was ridiculously quick. He was also a bit lazy and his skill set wouldn’t have been the best.
“He wasn’t eating properly and at 74kg he was nowhere near strong enough. The first thing I did was buy him lunch and sort out his food. Then one day shortly after joining us on a scholarship, he said: ‘I want to be a pro rugby player.’”
Smeeth was watching the Guinness PRO12 final on television from his father’s hospital bedside in Dorchester when a familiar figure flashed across the screen in Connacht green. Adeolokun had scored a try worthy of winning any Cup final.
“I don’t mind admitting I had tears in my eyes,” Smeeth said. “He’s always been a great lad with a lovely smile. I feel as if he’s almost my step-son.”
And that’s another reason why the 2016 Guinness PRO12 final deserves to sit in a class all by itself.
Connacht season 2015-16:
Most appearances (including European Challenge Cup):
31 – Finlay Bealham.
28 – Bundee Aki.
27 – John Muldoon, Aly Muldowney.
26 – Matt Healy
25 – Tiernan O’Halloran, Dave Heffernan.
24 – Kieran Marmion
23 – Tom McCartney
20 – Sean O’Brien, Craig Ronaldson, Denis Buckley.
19 – Niyi Adeolokun, Ronan Loughney, Ultan Dillane, Jack Carty.
18 – Eoin McKeon, Rory Parata, Andrew Browne.
17 – Eoghan Masterson, Peter Robb.
Most tries (all matches):
13 – Matt Healy
9 – Niyi Adeolokun
7 – Tiernan O’Halloran
6 – Bundee Aki
5 – Kieran Marmion, Danie Poolman
4 – John Muldoon, Rory Parata.
Most points (all matches):
99 – Jack Carty
89 – Craig Ronaldson
65 – Matt Healy
53 – AJ MacGinty
Guinness PRO12 Final 2017, 27th May, Aviva Stadium, Dublin.
Ticket Information: Fans can still avail of an exclusive number of €35 tickets. Book via www.ticketmaster.ie. Further information: www.pro12rugby.com/final