Inspirational Swift comfortable with rising expectations
GAVIN CUMMISKEYtalks to the 34-year-old Londoner-Irishman who encapsulates the spirit evident in Connacht
THERE WASN’T nearly enough of Michael Swift talking about his “undying will to succeed” in last night’s TG4 documentary about Connacht rugby so we sought out the big man ourselves.
The 34-year-old Londoner of Irish parents has been an ever- present warrior in the western province’s constant struggle these past 13 seasons.
After the recent battering they gave Leinster at the Sportsground, The Irish Times columnist Liam Toland summed up just how important the big lock is to the cause: “It started with Michael Swift hunting down and then smashing Fionn Carr as Connacht poured over the carcass . . . Swift went on to make a monumental 22 tackles.”
There is another moment in the documentary, charting Connacht’s entry into the Heineken Cup last season that tells us even more about the man. We are in the huddle on The Stoop pitch after defeat to Harlequins in round one when a devastated Eric Elwood simply runs out of words.
“I am proud of you, the effort was f***ing immense, unfortunately we got nothing. It’s disappointing but . . . I dunno . . .”
The coach was welling up, dangling in the loneliest of winds when an English accent breaks the silence. “Next week boys,” said Swift. “That’s our first f***ing home game and we need to raise it again. You think this is acceptable? It’s not now. We’ve set a f***ing bar now. Next week we f***ing raise it. We turn up on Monday with our heads held high knowing we’ve got a job to do on Saturday. Now it’s the next biggest game in Connacht’s history and we will turn up and we will f***ing win . . . ”
They did turn up but so did the mighty Toulouse. It got worse. In Gloucester they coughed up a winning position at the death before, finally, ruining Harlequins’ aspirations of reaching the quarter-final in round six. Of course, that was on a wet, miserable night in Galway.
“I wouldn’t be the biggest talker in the squad,” Swift assured us. “I talk when I need to. The likes of Eric, John Muldoon, Johnny O’Connor and Gavin Duffy are the vocal leaders. Just watching the documentary, I seemed to have a flare up after the first Harlequins game! When I do talk I try to make a good impact. I just hope people take on board what I have to say.”
Swift sees the benefit of last night’s programme as two-fold.
“What’s good about it is people just see the result, they don’t see what goes on behind the scenes. They don’t see how committed people like Eric are to the cause.
“Hopefully people will have seen the documentary and it might have stirred some memories and it will get a few more through the turnstiles for Harlequins’ return visit next week.”
It was current Quins head coach John Kingston who brought Swift to Galwegians in 2000.
“John knew me from my Richmond days and he knew my parents were Irish. The initial plan was to come over and enjoy the west of Ireland for a couple of years. I was brought up in London so it is a world apart.
“I remember arriving and Mervyn Murphy was the first person to welcome me – Merv of course is involved with Ireland now – and show me the ropes.
“I don’t remember my first night in Galway. The next day the lads took me for a walk along the promenade in Salthill and from then onwards I fell in love with the place. It is a gorgeous part of the world, slightly windy and wet, but Connacht and Galway people are a very proud bunch. It is such a privilege to be welcomed into that family. Especially coming here with such a strong English accent. They took a while to warm to me but it is home now.”
What’s changed in Connacht since 2000?
“I remember turning up at my first ever session and there was about 15 players. It was an eye- opener. Eric was a player back then and he was shouting abuse at people for not turning up for training. It’s like comparing chalk and cheese to nowadays. Look at the players we have brought in this season like Dan Parks and Nathan White. We have had a strong 15 for the last few years if not a 22 or 23. The Heineken Cup games take huge toll on the bodies so we need a strong core to compete. That’s what has improved but we do need to keep building the depth of our squad.”
The formation of a Professional Game Board and arrival of new chief executive Tom Sears has improved facilities, but what needs to happen next?
“In the Rabo we finished eighth last year. Top six is our goal. In the Heineken we managed to get that win over Harlequins but this year there are no surprises, people expect more from us and so do we.”
Another comment by Swift in The West’s Awake perfectly encapsulates what it means to be a rugby player who is paid weekly a fraction of what other top professional sportsmen earn.
“In order to put my body on the line week in, week out, it’s not for financial gain. It’s got to mean something to me personally.
“And for me it comes from the supporters. They may not see the pain we go through but every time we walk onto the pitch we carry that expectation. When you can look your friend in the eye, knowing you have given 100 per cent, and knowing you have carried the burden of expectation of all the supporters then you can’t ask any more than that.”