Brave Connacht come up just short in European Cup play-off

Connacht hooker Dave Heffernan who scored their second try against Northampton.

Northampton 21

Connacht 15

HAVING first embraced his captain John Muldoon near the dugout, Pat Lam then begin a slow but purposeful walk across the Franklin’s Gardens pitch towards the large group of Connacht supporters who had made themselves seen and heard for the previous coupe of hours. Saints fans were streaming out, the season was over but Lam had one final task to complete.

When he and his squad reached those fans, they received a huge ovation. Lam lingered and then, in his own typical engaging fashion, made it his business to shake as many hands as he possible could. There were easily 250 followers at the game and he had a word for almost each of them.

It wasn’t the send off Lam wanted. How special would it have been to have seen him back at the Sportsground this weekend for one final game? The ground would have been heaving, win, lose or draw the scenes would have been emotional, resembling Eric Elwood’s swansong in 2013 no doubt.

Alas, sport and fate aren’t about neat and suitable narratives, they are instead about cold hard realities with the odd drop of magic every so often. Lam has experienced the hard truths many times in his career and the final season of his four in Connacht has certainly fallen into that category, but the three before this campaign were special, magic even but more than magic because the success was very real and measurable.

It was a success stemming from hard work and endeavour, a success that can be charted and explained. So let’s not just call it magic, lest anyone try to tell you that it can’t be repeated, lest anyone inside or outside Connacht try to set the bar lower for this province in the long term in the interest of creating a softer role for themselves or talking the region down because of its size or remote spot on the map.

Lam has shown the way, everyone knows it won’t be a case of trophies every year for sure, but they also need to know that last season shouldn’t be a drop in the ocean either. Saturday’s six point loss meant that Connacht failed in their objective to maintain their Champions Cup status for a second successive year, but the future still looks bright.

The former Samoan star built his revolution first by identifying the culture and character of the region, then by noting areas where he needed expertise and support and bringing the right people into his management team before finally empowering young emerging local players with leadership roles and multiple caps.

The one final surprising element for Lam will be the fact that he probably felt satisfied as he boarded the plane on Saturday night. He would never have imagined that anything other than completing his stated goal of Champions Cup qualification would have been enough for such a feeling, but all things considered, his side had left the field in Northampton with their heads held high.

Beforehand, the fear was that this could be a landslide. Such was the alarming drop off in work rate, attitude and skills in the Connacht squad over the last seven games that most people were predicting a big home win. Connacht’s game plan had looked predictable, the videos of the Munster and Scarlets games must have made for relaxing viewing for the Saints players.

Full report in this week’s Connacht Tribune.