As the BKT United Rugby Championship play-offs reach fever pitch, rugby fans are gearing up for what promises to be a brutal clash between reigning champions, the DHL Stormers, and the ultimate underdog of the season, Connacht Rugby.
The Irish province has defied the odds and punched above their weight this season, proving to be a force to be reckoned with.
Connacht’s journey to the semi-finals has been nothing short of remarkable. Traditionally overshadowed by Irish giants Leinster, Munster and Ulster, the men from Galway have shown their worth in the 2022-23 BKT URC, finishing seventh in the league phase with 10 wins from 18 matches.
A run of six wins in a row in the run-up to the play-offs helped Connacht qualify for the quarter-finals, where they shocked Ulster with a 15-10 victory in Belfast. This result demonstrated Connacht’s determination and fighting spirit.
This is also not their first run at the title as they won the league (then called the PRO12) in 2016 shocking teams such as Leinster, Munster, Glasgow Warriors and Ospreys as former coach Pat Lam led the westerner’s to a remarkable championship crown against all odds.
One of the key drivers of Connacht’s current success has been their departing coach, Andy Friend. The Australian has been with the club for five years and has overseen a period of significant progress. His approach has been based on a commitment to team spirit and drive to improve every aspect of the club’s game.
Friend has been supported by Dewald Senekal, the South African-born forwards coach who joined in 2021, and whose insight on Connacht’s opponents from the Republic has been invaluable.
The team based in Galway ended the inaugural BKT URC campaign in 11th place but did claim the only win for an Irish team in South Africa when they beat the Emirates Lions 33-30 at Emirates Airline Park, one of three wins over South African teams in the 2021-22 season.
Meanwhile, captain and flyhalf, Jack Carty has been just as instrumental. His leadership, skill, and accuracy have been vital in guiding the team to the semi-finals, supported by fellow Ireland internationals such as winger Mack Hansen, centre Bundee Aki and prop Finlay Bealham.
Hansen’s recent statement sums up Connacht’s unwavering determination: “We gave it everything we had for the full 80 minutes against Ulster. Plenty of positives and things to work on, and we’re pretty excited coming into this DHL Stormers week.
“There is a lot of spirit in this team and we’re fighters. We know that we are the outside horse every week. Even when we started winning regularly, everyone just kept waiting for us to stumble. We just kept winning.”
Despite the DHL Stormers beating Connacht in Round 2 of the 2022-23 campaign with a bonus-point win in Stellenbosch, the Irish province has proven that they can overcome adversity and rise to the occasion.
As Connacht prepares to take on the DHL Stormers at the DHL Stadium in Cape Town, they’ll need to draw on all their strengths to overcome the champions. But one thing’s for sure, Connacht will not back down and will fight to the very end. They’re the ultimate underdog, and everyone loves a good underdog story.