Tearful and emotional? All in day’s work for Connacht journalist Linley MacKenzie
There have been many memorable days for the warriors of the west but the victory over Toulouse caps them all
The Connacht team in a huddle after their seismic victory – probably in the history of the Heineken Cup – over four-time winners Toulouse at the Stade Ernest Wallon on Sunday. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho
In an interview with Connacht rugby coach Declan McDermott in 1989 I asked the question: “How are you going to beat the All Blacks?”
I since learned McDermott remembered the question for its utter lunacy. Connacht beat the All Blacks? At the time I had thought that as a New Zealander and recent arrival, it might seem both arrogant and negative to ask by how much he expected Connacht would lose, and I soon learned that taking the positives, any positive, was a necessary mantra for all Connacht players, administrators, supporters and scribes to survive the Connacht roller-coaster that has endured more lows than highs.
While the fear of losing continues to motivate the All Blacks, Connacht’s raison d’être has been always the hopes of winning.
As expected on that occasion, the All Blacks maintained their winning World Cup form, but it spawned two of the province’s most influential personnel. McDermott and the selectors had opted to give a new kid a start against the world champions.
That was Eric Elwood, and covering his development and ultimate elevation from Connacht youngster to international and then Connacht coach was made both easy and enjoyable for his passion, professionalism, and fortitude that epitomised much of what is good about the province.
Easy to identify
The second was Warren Gatland, who as a player on that 1989 All Black side remained in Galway to coach Galwegians and ultimately become Connacht, Ireland, Wales and the Lions coach. As a fellow Kiwi it was easy to identify with Gatland, and his appointment as coach coincided with the birth of the European competition which was to provide the province with its most memorable days out.
As an innovator, Gatland gave Connacht the 14-man lineout few will forget when first used against visitors Australia, but on more than one occasion Connacht discharged its Cinderella tag – not least in1997 against Northampton, home and away – to qualify for the European conference quarter-finals. At the time it was hard to remember when an Irish team had experienced a more remarkable victory – until Toulouse.
The similarities are stark. Gatland, Elwood, and a group of unheralded players had put their bodies on the line in a consummate team effort in Franklin’s Gardens to overcome a club with a €2m budget advantage.
Birth of a Connacht
Eventually, however, Connacht came up against a bigger and better Agen side in the quarter-finals, but the visit to Stade Armandie was notable for the birth of a Connacht travelling support that bought into the brand, and few will forget Gatland’s assistant Michael Crosgrove leading the team in their rendition of Red is the Rose for one last time.
While Europe has provided most of Connacht’s best days out, the interprovincial series has been less fruitful. However, in 2002 a Connacht team under Steph Nel recorded a 26 - 23 win over Leinster at Fortress Donnybrook. It was an occasion when Connacht supporters could puff out their chest.
It is often said it is not easy to be a Connacht supporter – it is similarly challenging as a journalist. Covering rugby in the west of Ireland could, and still can be lonely. In other provinces journalists hunt in packs, but in Connacht you might often find yourself not only the sole media representative, but the only supporter.
In covering a team such as Connacht, it is hard not to become emotionally involved. The struggle for the province to receive media coverage nationally has been matched by the fight to be treated equally by the IRFU.
Witnessing the rise in Connacht support who rallied against the IRFU, gave considerable hope and purpose to Connacht’s cause – not least the formation for the first time of a Connacht Supporters’ Club, while the removal of any threat to its existence gave heart to long-serving officials, none more so than former CEO Gerry Kelly who had steered Connacht through its most difficult period without fuss.
That enduring battle to survive is now engrained in Connacht’s psyche, but it been matched on the pitch by an increasing and palpable desire to win. Coach Michael Bradley took Connacht’s European campaign to a new level with a first semi-final against Harlequins over two legs, following up with another against Sale and in 2009 against Toulon. Those victories, particularly in France – against Narbonne, Montpellier, Pau and Grenoble – were crucial in promoting and retaining players.
Elwood grabbed the mantle in time to help steer developments, along with the new Professional Games Board, both off and on the pitch. The addition of the Connacht Clan stand has given a growing band of supporters a new home and the expectant 9,000 for Saturday’s return visit of Toulouse is a far cry from the 1,500 a few years ago.
There is now growing belief that Connacht players can follow in the footsteps of Noel Mannion, Eric Elwood, Conor McGuinness, Gavin Duffy, and John Muldoon – players who did not have to leave the province to receive recognition.
Pride and purpose
The Heineken Cup has promoted a new pride and purpose, but last Sunday’s victory over Toulouse was the stuff that often words cannot do justice. Just as Elwood battled a run of 14 defeats on the trot before stunning Harlequins two seasons ago, Pat Lam has struggled through a rough opening to his tenure as Connacht coach while maintaining faith and confidence.
In Stade Ernest Wallon that faith was justified.
Everyone loves a David versus Goliath story – rare as they may be – but it makes covering Connacht all that more special, all that more emotional, and dare I say tearful. One can only imagine how many more strides, more scalps, and more days out Connacht could enjoy with a more equitable budget.
So back to 1989 and the visit of the All Blacks. Captain Buck Shelford said his last words to his team before they took to the field was Kia Kaha – be strong.
Now that is something Connacht have in bucket loads.
Linley MacKenzie is a former New Zealand journalist who is based in Galway, working for the Galway Advertiser, who has been covering Connacht Rugby for 23 years.