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Historic cult heroes: Connacht, Leinster, Munster and Ulster

Charlie Talbot-Smith

10 Aug 2017

With the new-look Guinness PRO14 soon to return, we are taking a look back at some of the great names of the past in this league.

And here we examine the cult heroes from the Irish provinces that have provided us with many a memory over the years.

And where better to start than with the man who led Connacht to their fairytale title back in the 2015/16 season?

Connacht

Connacht back-row John Muldoon has made a record 303 appearances after having made his debut in 2004.

Without a doubt his finest moment was lifting his club’s first ever major trophy as captain when they won the 2015-16 title.

The Galwaymen defeated provincial rivals and traditional powerhouses Leinster 20-10 in the BT Murrayfield final and Muldoon was named man-of-the-match on an historic afternoon.

After a 131-year wait, Connacht had finally won major honours aptly lead by their iconic captain.

After the final whistle, Muldoon revealed he had bet 20 Euros he wouldn’t cry if his team won the competition.

He referred to the bet as “the best 20 quid I have ever spent.”

But while Muldoon enjoyed the greatest moment in the club’s history, the foundation was laid by another historic figure in ex-player and ex-coach, and Galway native, Eric Elwood.

As a player, he helped cement Connacht’s name on the European rugby scene during their run in the 2005/06 Challenge Cup where they lost their semi-final to eventual winners Harlequins.

He also helped his side make history and become the first Irish province to win on French soil when they beat Begles Bordeaux in 1997/98.

After retiring, he returned to Connacht as a coach, where he got revenge on Quins by knocking them off the top spot in the pool stage of the 2011-12 Champions Cup, condemning them to the Amlin Cup with a 9-8 victory at Galway Sportsground.

Leinster

The golden boy of Irish rugby, the legend that is Brian O’Driscoll won two European crowns, a Challenge Cup and four domestic titles in his storied career with Leinster.

Arguably his most memorable display in a blue jersey was his man-of-the-match outing in the European semi-finals at Croke Park against Munster.

He scored his side’s second try of the game in the 61st minute, after a 60-metre interception to put the game beyond their rivals.

But to pick out one performance is impossible for a talisman who always seemed to produce when it mattered in the blue of Leinster and the green of Ireland. Indeed the centre hung up his boots as his country’s top appearance maker and top try scorer.

But New Zealand-born Isa Nacewa is one of the cherished adopted sons of Leinster.

Nacewa has operated all around the backs during his distinguished career, and retired from the game after three European Cups and three PRO14 titles with Leinster at the end of the 2012-13 season.

Much to the fans’ delight, he came out of retirement in April 2015 and re-joined the club.

He was named as captain at the start of the next campaign, a position he holds to this day.

He has since helped Leinster to a PRO14 final in 2016 where they lost to Connacht and finished as top try scorer in Europe the season just gone as Leinster made it into the semi-finals.

Munster

The beloved Paul O’Connell lifted two European titles with Munster as well as three domestic titles.

Their first European crown owed much to the legendary lock, scoring a try in the quarter-final against Perpignan, and putting in two huge performances in the semi-final against Leinster and the final against Biarritz Olympique.

He was named captain the following year and led his team to another European title in 2008,while with Ireland he was huge in their Grand Slam of 2009 and subsequent back to back titles in 2014 and 2015 before retiring later that year.

Ireland’s record points scorer, Ronan O’Gara, was also vital for Munster in that historic winning period.

Nothing sums up his importance in the clutch more than in 2011 when he slotted a 41st phase match-winning drop goal to down Northampton Saints at Thomond Park.

But he did it time and again for club and country, pulling the strings as Munster dominated both domestically and abroad.

Finally, Donncha O’Callaghan made a record 268 appearances for the province between 1998 and 2015.

He partnered O’Connell to complete one of the most revered and experienced second-row partnerships in the history of the game.

Ulster

Ulster’s legendary fly-half David Humphreys captained his side to their only ever Euroepan crown in 1998-99.

His side defeated Colomiers 21-6 in front of 49,500 fans at Lansdowne Park. It was the crowning moment of a career which was very much not over at that point.

He went on to play for his side until 2008, when he retired to take up the role of Director of Operations; a position he held until 2014.

He also played a huge role in the 2005-06 Celtic League. Ulster were behind league leaders Ospreys and needed a win for glory.

With minutes to spare, Humphreys kicked a 40-metre drop goal and brought the trophy back to the Ulster’s quarter of the Emerald Isle.

Hooker Rory Best has made 230 appearances for Ulster and is going in to his tenth year as captain of the side.

Since making his debut in 2005, he has had an illustrious career at both provincial and international level.

He is the current captain of the national side and could conceivably break O’Driscoll’s appearance record.