Connacht Rugby: Finally in the Limelight

As published on Pundit Arena

There’s an old saying I came across before: “It’s six o’clock and there isn’t a cow milked or a child washed.” I wouldn’t be surprised if it applied over there in Connacht last weekend.

For my sins, I was in Galway last Saturday evening. With my Leinster jersey in tow, I perched myself in The Lough Inn on Woodquay, surrounded by an army of Connacht fans. It was a brave and brazen move – and, as it turns out, I’ll never be allowed to forget it.

I can’t remember when Mikey Sheehy chipped Paddy Cullen in ‘78 but I can still see myself on holidays in a full Irish kit when Ray Houghton had Gianluca Pagliuca similarly floundering in ‘94. I was in a shop when Katie Taylor struck gold in London and catching up on some homework when Paul McGinley jumped in the lake at The Belfry. In 2009, I was jumping on a couch when Tony Ward screamed like a Belieber as Ronan O’Gara dropped Ireland into euphoria in Cardiff.

These are all moments that are part of Irish sporting folklore. After Saturday, we can add another: where were you when the rugby team from the west of Ireland made history by winning their first ever title in Edinburgh?

None of us were around when Queen Méabh led the warriors of Connacht into battle to claim the most famous bull in Ireland in the Cattle Raid of Cooley. In time, folklore will record that it was actually Pat Lam in charge that day.

I have long suspected this term that Lam has a magic potion his players ingest on match days; after Saturday I have no doubts about it. I’ve also imagined that there are a lot of little gremlins and assorted spirits that lurk about the Sportsground spooking out their opponents. Granted, a numbers of those gremlins hanging around last Monday morning were self-induced, but on Saturday, the coalition of a magic concoction and supernatural forces pulled down one of the best sides that this country has ever produced.

After just 12 minutes, Leinster fans looking on were questioning the strength of their own alcoholic potions as Matt Healy scythed through the middle of the field in the lead up to Tiernan O’Halloran’s opener. I promptly sought refuge in the bathroom and as I summoned the strength to return, I found myself having angry flashbacks to Santiago Cordero leading Ireland on a merry dance in Cardiff last October. For the locals, the moment was probably more reminiscent of Michael Donnellan’s solo burst through Kildare in the All-Ireland final of 1998.

When Nigel Owens finally brought proceedings to a close, there was little I could be bitter about despite my biased frustrations. Connacht had simply been the better team.

While Devin Toner’s unfortunate loss damaged Leinster’s capacity from touch, Connacht did not seek to solely exploit any advantage in that area. Indeed, it was a guilty pleasure to see how they took the game to their eastern counterparts, restoring our faith in running rugby. At almost every opportunity Messrs Healy, O’Halloran and Niyi Adeolokun wrought havoc, led by AJ McGinty who enjoyed the most impressive afternoon by an Irish out-half this year. Regretfully, he has to call himself an American these days.

Elsewhere, as he set about waging war in Edinburgh, John Muldoon reminded me of Éamon de Valera: to some people he represented the Second Coming but to those in the blue shirts he was the Devil incarnate. Meanwhile, the local quarries are struggling to cut enough stone for Bundee Aki’s statue in Eyre Square.

Of course I heard many wild, whirling and jumbled words in the aftermath of the famous victory. One man though suggested that Connacht’s inferiority complex had finally been buried forever – and he was talking about more than rugby.

Thanks to success on the pitch and astute management off it, Leinster Rugby has flourished in the professional era – the fanbase has grown exponentially, so too the trophy cabinet and it is now the strongest rugby franchise in the Northern Hemisphere. Their growth has been such that the RDS Arena requires redevelopment to the tune of €20million. Their strength in depth is such that the bench comprised an aggregate of 116 Test appearances on Saturday. Sean Cronin alone has more caps than the entirety of the Connacht panel. And that’s before you ever mention that ten further internationals were not involved.

Despite being the first Irish side to triumph in Europe in 1999, Ulster have been perennial underachievers ever since. Now allegedly bankrolled by the world’s most famous golfer, their continued development has posed the most substantial threat to Leinster’s throne in recent years. With the maturation of Paddy Jackson, Iain Henderson, Luke Marshall, Stuart McCloskey, Stuart Olding and now Sean Reidy, Ulster are likely to have a significant say in domestic and national proceedings. It helps that they can also count the Irish captain among their ranks.

This summer Munster will welcome Rassie Erasmus as their new Director of Rugby in an effort to address their current plight. However, it is generally accepted that the best in Munster come from within. While there have been obvious exceptions, most notably CJ Stander, the likes of Gerhard van den Heever and Mark Chisholm haven’t exactly filled the 26,000 seats at Thomond Park. Legendary characters of old are woven into the fabric of the club. For the moment, they will continue to apply extensive funding into their development programmes in the hope that the next Paul O’Connell is lying in wait.

They have all been, and will be again, great sides. But for now Connacht deserve the acclaim. They defied all the odds and have shaken up the old order.

It would have been hard for anyone not to have been moved by the unbridled joy in Galway last weekend. “Ecstatic” almost seems too pale a word. Men and women who might never have set foot inside the windy terraces at the Sportsground celebrated as though it were their own flesh and blood that had taken to the Murrayfield pitch.

Nevertheless, life goes on. I’m sure those cows were eventually milked and children washed. On Sunday, even as the party continued across the City of the Tribes, there was no postponing of the Galway Senior Football Championship in Pearse Stadium. The only difference was all the youngsters in the stands wearing green and cradling a rugby ball.

It can only be a good thing for Irish rugby.

 

Richard McElwee

Posted on June 23, 2016 in Blog

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