Underfunding ensures Connacht remain the perennial bridesmaids of Irish rugby
French NotesTo fully develop their potential, Connacht must get a much better deal from the IRFU
What do Eden Park in Auckland, Stade Ernest-Wallon in Toulouse, Ellis Park in Johannesburg and The Sportsground in Galway have in common? They are the toughest places I have ever visited to try to get an away win.
The architecture, atmosphere and pressure at the Sportsground is completely different from the other three rugby cathedrals.
Nowhere else in the world of professional rugby do you have to negotiate a greyhound track to reach the playing field, nor is the best view of the action reserved for the “dearly departed” in the cemetery that commands the heights around the arena.
For visiting teams the difficulty lies in the contrast between and the wonderful hospitality from the people of Galway and the beauty of the surrounding countryside to the “dead” atmosphere of The Sportsground.
In Auckland, Johannesburg and Toulouse the home team are at almost unbackable odds to win. In Galway it is the exact opposite. Every visiting team is expected to win. Their supporters, media and chairman look at Connacht’s position on the league table and conclude they should be beaten as a matter of course. Everyone knows Connacht should lose, except Connacht themselves. Galway is always an ambush.
I dreaded going there.
I tasted defeat in Galway on my very first visit there. I did not like it one bit. My teams won all the other matches but only just and only after a pitched battle.
In the old days after the match the teams would retire to Eric Elwood’s pub, where the hospitality and sportsmanship were only matched by the quality of the pints Eric would pour for us. There was never a feeling of elation or joy in victory. The over riding emotion was one of relief.
Over the years I have watched a string of high profile teams go to Galway and lose.
Biarritz are the latest high profile scalp for Connacht in Galway. Serge Blanco should have talked with Conor O’Shea for a heads up before the match. With Conor’s experience of losing there last year with his Harlequins team, he would have warned Serge that to win in Galway requires a total physical commitment.
If not you will leave the Sportsground with your tail between your legs.
The dichotomy for Connacht lies in their away performances. For every spirited display they show to their home crowd, they are too often soft and uncommitted away. Over the years on the road, in the Magners League, the Rabo and in Europe Connacht have been exceptionally poor. They have been magnificent against Ulster, Munster and especially Leinster, yet they are have been appalling and inconsistent against the French, English, Welsh and Scots.
The conditions in Biarritz this week were more like the Connemara than the Cote Basque but Connacht once again disappointed on the road.
Mike McCarthy signing with Leinster has reopened the debate of the role Connacht play within Irish rugby. Firstly, Mike and Joe Schmidt have done nothing wrong. Joe’s job is to look after Leinster not Connacht. Joe needs depth and Irish-qualified players. To not sign Mike for Leinster would be Joe neglecting his responsibility.
Mike is a tough, honest player who wants to win trophies and Leinster have the ability to do this. Regrettably Connacht do not. I feel for Connacht but this is the reality of professional sport.
Here is the Catch 22. The IRFU give Connacht a much smaller piece of the financial pie than the other three provinces. They should get a much better deal from the IRFU. The underfunding means it is harder for them to develop, recruit and retain quality players. Thus their performances are inconsistent.
To place pressure on the IRFU to get a better financial deal they need to perform to a much higher standard away from home and win. To do this they need better players. You get the picture.
The official stance is that Connacht is a development team. The reality is no player develops in a losing environment. Players develop in successful teams.
Years ago Brian Ashton took an Irish development team to tour New Zealand. “The land of the long white cloud” is not the place to go to develop. There, you get unmercifully smacked if you are not on top of your game. The tour was a disaster as the team’s culture was attacked in a losing environment.
Putting a team out that is constantly defeated does no one any good. The habit of poor performances away from home must be addressed by the current Connacht playing group. Money has nothing to do with attitude and away wins are all about attitude.
For rugby to develop in the west, Connacht have to become a winning province. The current players must show the same grit and effort on the road that they do at home. Only by winning will political pressure mount on the IRFU to change its funding model. In winning, Connacht will create the culture that will keep the Mike McCarthys of this world in Galway.