What a season that was for Connacht. In a fairytale year, it's refreshing of Pat Lam to be talking about defending the PRO12 crown in the immediate aftermath of beating Leinster on Saturday in Murrayfield.
But that's just who Lam is. It will be a tough ask for Connacht though. Not only will teams want to take them down a peg or two - they are losing some serious talent from their ranks. From the 23 who played in the final, four players - Rodney Ah You, Aly Muldowney, AJ McGinty, and Robbie Henshaw will all be leaving Galway in the coming months.
Henshaw is the marquee name from that quartet, but he's by no means the biggest loss that Connacht will face. In fact, given that he only played in 11 games for the province - it's arguable that he wouldn't be in the Connacht team of the season. Craig Ronaldson and Bundee Aki formed a brilliant centre partnership in his absence, and Tiernan O'Halloran has the full-back slot sewn up after a career year.
Henshaw is leaving a crowded backline of young talented players. Peter Robb was breaking through at the end of the year, and will be promoted from the academy, Ronaldson will return from injury - and there's still Conor Finn, Danie Poolman, and Rory Parata to partner Bundee Aki. Eoin Griffen's prodigal son return means that Connacht are now pretty stacked for centre options.
If they want Henshaw's hard battering ram style - they go with Robb. If they want another distributor, they have Aki or Ronaldson. If they want secure defense - it's Griffen, or Robb. If they want Henshaw's magic- Aki or Parata. Connacht have options, and while losing the marquee name of a Robbie Henshaw - his absense won't be as keenly felt as you'd think.
Both AJ McGinty and Aly Muldowney will be bigger losses. McGinty helped solve a problem position for Connacht. Outhalf has been an issue since Eric Elwood retiring, and the combination of Ronaldson and McGinty have helped Connacht with a better kicking average, and direction than before. But with Springbok Marnitz Boshoff arriving, as well as Jack Carty and Ronaldson improving - there is some hope at that position.
One player they can't just replace is Aly Muldowney. As evidenced by Murray Kinsella's outstanding analysis of Connacht's play - Aly Muldowney is the most under-rated under-rated player of all time. He is the driving force, the decision maker. Lam plays a style that see Muldowney come in as first or second receiver, and he makes the decision about where the ball goes. He has the experience, the intelligence, and the skills to do the right thing for his team.
best display this season.. Muldowney is a bigger lost to Connacht . For the short term
— sylvain gatay (@sylvaingatay) May 29, 2016
Can Ultan Dillane do that? Is he experienced enough? Can Quinn Roux? Is he skilful enough? What about Andrew Browne? Or academy prospect Cian Romaine? Is he ready? Can Ben Marshall or Daniel Qualter stay injury free? These are the biggest unknowns for Connacht next season - especially when there is no lock coming in to replace Muldowney.
The Irish eligible lock will be a big loss to Connacht, and after his performance in the final - you have to wonder why he's not in the Ireland squad.