The teams will meet in the RDS this evening
Ahead of the Guinness Pro12 clash between Leinster and Connacht, Robert Murphy assess Connacht's progress after a shaky start to the season as well as the impact of Robbie Henshaw's transfer to Leinster.
Let’s start with a flashback to Thomond Park 12 months ago - October 28th 2015 to be precise. Connacht ended a 29 year wait for a competitive win against Munster at the famous Limerick venue on that cold Saturday night. There was an image from that night that will live long in the memory of every rugby follower from the west of Ireland - Bundee Aki thumping his chest after scoring his late late try.
Munster had owned that fixture in the previous decades, a succession of Connacht teams had crumbled at the venue. Meekly brushed aside, frozen at the sight of the red jersey, bullied by long standing heroes from that province, time and time again. It felt like Munster were always the team who represented rural Ireland, Connacht were just a smaller version of the same idea. This irked Connacht folk.
Image: Bundee Aki has been a key asset for Connacht
On this particular night, things were different and it was as if Aki, just 12 months a Connacht man, had read the most important chapter in the book of who we are in the province and with his perspective from the other side of the world, understood us better in that moment, than anyone outsider could ever manage.
That chest bump was one of those rare moments that perfectly encapsulates everything about being a fan. The act of following a team through thick and thin is a baffling one even at the best of times. Why does it matter so much? what are we looking for from this fanaticism? who do we think we’re impressing when our team wins?
The view of Irish rugby’s current trials and tribulations through the prism of a west of Ireland base must be a whole lot different than what is seen throughout the other three provinces. This is the greatest era in the history of rugby in this part of the world, no doubt about that, hands down the very best.
No less than 91.5% of the people on this island don’t live in province of Connacht (The population of 542,478 making up 8.5% of the 6.3 million. Of course many of the people who support the rugby team in the west of Ireland hail from just across the border or further afield so Connacht followers probably make up closer to 15% of the overall provincial rugby enthusiasts. Still, tiny by comparison.
The collective mood of the clan that follow the Connacht side is easy to gauge right now, while last season was a whirlwind of thrilling proportions, these past four weeks have been almost equally as significant and in some ways more satisfying.
Image: Connacht have recovered from a poor start to the 2016 Guinness Pro12 season
A mini September crisis born from a poorly constructed pre-season and combined with an underlying feeling that the May triumph left a sort of a novice winners hangover, put Connacht in a bind to start the campaign. The one hit wonders tag was tossed out, talk of the impact of three key players who had departed intensified, while newspapers carried stories of a future exodus of talent.
Yet in just four short weeks, all has changed, bonus point wins over Edinburgh and Ulster followed by a thrilling home win over Toulouse and a clinical dismantling of Zebre in Parma. They won’t admit to have been panicked by the three game losing streak at the start but they’ve got their shape back and it shows in their off field demeanour.
The remarkable turnaround was complete by Tuesday with news that Bundee Aki and Ultan Dillane, two prized assets reportedly pursued by Munster and others, had been signed up for long term deals. The message was clear, two world class players were thriving with Connacht and had no firm intentions of changing that narrative any time soon. At the same point where Henshaw sought new challenges, these two men saw no need for such a route.
Aki, Henshaw, Dillane and Muldoon like Eric Elwood, Johnny O’Connor, Junior Charlie and Simon Geoghegan before them are no different than any other rugby heroes from the west. They aren’t perfect, they don’t have any neatly defined back stories to compare, they have had to look after their own self interests at different junctures also but they will always be remembered for their ability to excel in Connacht teams, to thrive in this environment.
Image: Robbie Henshaw adjusting to the Leinster jersey
Speaking of heroes, Robbie Henshaw’s departure will still rankle with many in the west, sure, in part because the sight of him in blue is a jarring one for those that watched him emerge in his homeland but much more so because there is an innate belief in those who watch Connacht week in week out, that there is no better province to be playing rugby in at this very moment than the one coached by Pat Lam.
Henshaw only once started in the 12 jersey for Connacht in his four year career, he played predominantly at 13 and 15. A more creative role, a leadership role, a role where he could explore the full range of his skillet even if his Ireland sojourns were very much in the number 12 power runner and defender role.
Out west, the feeling is that he had a perfect balance here as opposed to a very limiting role in Leinster. It’s just a view from a different perspective but make no mistake, virtually no one here is buying into the prevailing Leinster narrative that the move was better for his career. Almost all wish him well though and quietly expect him back in green at some point in the future.
Bundee Aki is the new folk hero in town and will be until 2020 all going well. He tells us on his very active (at times too active) twitter account that he bleeds green. He bleeds for the team too as we saw against Toulouse and he just seems to get the innate need of people from the west to be seen and recognised as a little bit different from other parts of Ireland, to underline the distinctly creative and expressive culture that exists in these parts.
In the meantime, Leinster, Munster and Ulster are all progressing nicely too though. Leinster haven’t wavered all that much in recent years anyhow. Their new look team has yielded wins and plenty of Ireland call ups while the PRO12 champions have only three Connacht (but Ireland’s loss is their gain in that regard).
The blues will be short a few on Saturday, Connacht will be too because of injuries but by a large they should be in better shape as they search for a first win in Dublin since 2002. This is another test, arguably bigger than what we’ve witnessed in the last four weeks.
Expect a big traveling support from the west. Expect the hosts to attempt to bully and dominate at the breakdown where Mike McCarthy and Sean O’Brien will be looking to restore the old storylines to this fixture. Finally, expect a Connacht team fully prepared for that challenge and ready to put their new brand of rugby to the test once more. Fearless and controlled. This is a new era.