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Connacht Have Leinster To Thank For Sparking All Of Their Success

Connacht Have Leinster To Thank For Sparking All Of Their Success
By Conor O'Leary Updated

Two years ago the European Rugby landscape changed forever.

The English clubs were unhappy with the share of the finances between the countries in the Heineken Cup, and were especially jealous of the perceived easiness of the PRO12.

Amid all the financial wrangling, the new Champions Cup also meant an increased importance in the league finish. The new meritocracy was meant to lead to a more competitive league - and that the Celtic nations would benefit from that.

A cursory glance at the PRO12 tables since this change has shown that it is certainly more competitive. There are now nine teams that can beat each other on any given day - with the two Italians and Dragons adrift at the bottom.

Connacht especially, have brought themselves up from the lower reaches of the table - and are now in their first ever PRO12 final. So meritocracy must be working? It must be the reason why Connacht finally got off their arses and made a difference right?

Well not really.

Yes, the league is more competitive - and that's the meritocracy based incentives are a factor.

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But Connacht's renaissance was coming about anyway, and it could be argued that they would be further along at this stage without the European Rugby upheaval. They would have produced the talents of Henshaw, Marmion, and Dillane either way. The renaissance might not have happened in the same manner without their initial appearances in the Heineken Cup

See Also: The Ironic Turning Point That Set Connacht Rugby On The Road To Better Days

Connacht's latest spark started in 2011 when they were first entered into the tournament from the majestic Leinster comeback in the Heineken Cup final five years ago.

The only thing that registered about Connacht's first foray into the Heineken Cup was the brilliant West's Awake documentary about that season. But showing that they could compete with Europe's best and even beating Harlequins on a dreary day in Galway gave them belief.

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The following season was even better. A victory over Biarritz, and two further wins against Zebre showed that they were improving. It was a confidence boost that Connacht weren't used to before - and they were doing this with their new academy products in Kieran Marmion and Robbie Henshaw.

The arrival of Pat Lam brought even more improvements. An away win against Toulouse was identified this week as when Lam realised there was something special growing out west. That victory came with nine players that came through the academy too - something that hadn't happened out west before. This young team was going places and improving quickly.

To go into the final game of the pool stage with a legitimate chance of victory was huge for this Connacht side. It showed what was capable. Connacht's hammering at the hands of Saracens was a set-back, and it has proved to be their last game with Europe's elite.

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Connacht's exposure to European elite brought them swiftly to that level. It accelerated the process, and made the new talented youngsters come through faster.

Connacht's academy was going to produce the talent afterwards anyway. The PRO12's increased importance wasn't going to prevent the likes of Finlay Bealham, Ultan Dillane, or Sean O'Brien from becoming the players that they are.

There's no suggestion that Connacht will start regressing to what they were after this remarkable season. Playing with the best players in the Champions Cup next year, will help their young talented squad. This team is here to stay - and they have the old ways of the Heineken Cup to thank for it.

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See Also: The Heartbreaking Defeats That Shaped Connacht's Current Success

Picture credit: SPORTSFILE

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