Connacht won't go away, you know

The crisis in Connacht: Gerry Thornley looks at a province angered but united by the IRFU's plans, proud of their achievements…

The crisis in Connacht: Gerry Thornley looks at a province angered but united by the IRFU's plans, proud of their achievements and determined to survive and prosper.

At the annual general meeting of the IRFU, six members of the 22-man committee are elected by ballot. It is an open, fair, democratic vote. Two delegates are nominated from Leinster, Ulster and Munster, and one from Connacht. In other words, six out of seven. And the last time they elected a Connacht delegate was in 1980.

Even that was only because politically incorrect remarks by one of the Munster nominations had given the Ulster delegates no option but to break ranks with the cartel. Otherwise, the Ulster, Leinster and Munster delegates could nominate a couple of tailor's dummies for all the difference it would make. They will always be elected.

But just for the heck of it, last year Connacht decided to put up two nominations. When the two names were read out, along with the proposers and seconders, this so bemused one Leinster man that he asked where they were from. "They're from Connacht," he was informed from the top table, which prompted objections from one of the Connacht delegates. But it had clarified the equation. The non-Connacht half dozen were duly elected.

Quite why the IRFU bothers with such an archaic and bigoted ritual is a moot point. But the pretence at democracy serves to demonstrate the almost institutionalised racism which exists against Connacht in Irish rugby, and most of all among the IRFU hierarchy.

In much of Irish life and sport, of course, Connacht have been treated as second-class citizens, and this may explain why the reaction west of the Shannon has transcended rugby, or even sport for that matter.

When collecting the Liam McCarthy Cup in 1980 on behalf of Galway, Joe Connolly was reckoned to give one of the best speeches of its kind at Croke Park. He was back on Wednesday night at the Friends of Connacht rally in the Radisson Hotel, taking to the rostrum and in vintage form.

"There's talk about the struggle that's facing Connacht rugby, sure what's new about Connacht and a struggle?" he said. "Hasn't that been the make-up of Connacht in all walks of life? Where in Ireland has been cursed more with emigration than Connacht?"

He then invoked the book 19 Acres by John Healy "that famous journalist from Charlestown. One woman's fight to keep her 19 acres to keep her identity," he said. "It was Connacht that was decimated in the 40s, 50s, 60s and again in the 80s with emigration."

Connolly recounted the beginnings of Monivea, and, without any floodlighting system, how they connected their lights to the home of an old bachelor living nearby. When the ESB man called to his door he readily believed the man couldn't have run up such a massive electricity bill, so went on his way without collecting.

"That's the struggle that Ulster, Munster and Leinster can't understand. That's what it's been like for Connacht rugby over the years," he said.

"Rugby isn't in competition with the GAA or with soccer. We're all in this together. The competition is drink and drugs," he said, referring to the estimated 90,000 alcoholics due to underage drinking, "as if the figures aren't bad enough already." All sports were weapons in this fight. "Ultimately it's all about youngsters," he concluded.

What's more, this threat to Connacht's very existence comes at a time when Galway is booming, the population in a host of "hub" towns is mushrooming and the underage scene in the province has never been better. Earlier in the day, across the open plan main office, Gerry Kelly, the chief executive of the Connacht Branch, sits in his office and outlines the upward graph.

In the late 1980s, Connacht had seven affiliated clubs, now there are 42, with 25 competing in the Junior Cup and 19 in the Senior Cup, representing an increase from about 7-800 players to 4-5,000.

Time was, as Ciarán Fitzgerald has recounted, when the Connacht Schools team comprised 14 Garbally boys and maybe one token St Joseph's or Sligo Grammar player. The team which lost 26-7 recently against a Leinster seconds selection drawn from its stronger section, had players from 11 different schools, and went on to beat Munster B, Leinster A and Ulster South County.

The Connacht Youths team has won two out of three for the last two seasons running, contributing more than a quarter of the Irish Youths team, and the under-21s achieved a grand slam two seasons ago, and reached the final of this year's newly formated championship winning three out of five, despite four of the games being away.

"The huge input into the development of players in the province is only starting to bear fruit now," he points out, with the best years yet to come if left to continue.

Eamonn Feely, an accountant with Hygeia Chemicals for whom the honorary treasurer of the Connacht Branch is a labour of love, sits on one side of a table in the same room where a month before they had formally met with an IRFU delegation seemingly hell-bent on the demise of team Connacht.

What galls more than anything else is that Connacht have been running the tightest ship in the game. Of the estimated €1.8 million set aside for Connacht, Feely oversees a budget of just €500,000 for what he calls the "provincial management account", i.e. the entire annual administration of the Connacht team. This encompasses everything except the salaries of the Connacht players and coach Steph Nel, from all hotel, food and travel costs to remaining wages and fees for management and assistant coaches.

The Connacht team is the flagship of the province, and through sponsorship deals with O2, Bank of Ireland and the Radisson Hotel, helps to generate almost €100,000 (it was €96,553 last year) for the running of the underage and amateur provincial teams.

"For example, we sent our under-18s on a tour of England without any help from the IRFU. We depend on the Connacht senior team to generate significant funds, otherwise the game in my opinion will die," says Feely.

"They may say they're going to keep the amateur game running down here, but who's going to run it for them? What's an amateur senior Connacht side going to do? Who's it going to play? We'll never get a sponsor again. So the Connacht senior team is vital to the Connacht Branch."

Despite a near loaves-and-fishes existence, Connacht appear decidedly progressive and upwardly mobile. With over 70 years left on their 99-year lease with Bord na gCon, their new administrative offices at the Sportsground are as good as anything in the game, which negates the hiring of any outside hotels for meetings or the like and includes four dressing-rooms, medical rooms, etc.

Assisted by a grant of €762,000 from the union, and the first €380,000 of a Government grant of €1.3 million, this first phase cost €1.3 million.

On the other side of the ground the main stand has been knocked down for a new, state-of-the-art stand in time for next season, costing over €4.5 million and being built by Bord na gCon. When completed it will be the only provincial ground - indeed the only rugby ground in the country - which will have corporate entertainment facilities. The next phase of the Sportsground's development will be floodlighting and an all-weather training pitch.

Henceforth therefore, their earning potential would never be greater and Philip Browne and Noel Murphy, as head of the IRFU's Stadium Committee were aware of Connacht's commitments to Bord na gCon.

"We have agreed a yearly fee with Bord na gCon towards the upkeep of the stand which the IRFU have also agreed to. How can we adhere to those agreements and operate effectively if we don't have a team?" asks Feely, bemused and betrayed.

Without any contracted players, all are agreed that it would be the death-knell for the senior clubs, especially Galwegians and Buccaneers. The Connacht under-21s coached by Bart Fannin, who have heretofore trained alongside the senior Connacht team under Steph Nel, would have nothing to aspire to.

Lately the senior squad has seen the promotion of a host of home-grown players, such as Johnny O'Connor, Damien Browne, Chris Keane, Ted Robinson, Martin McPhail, John Muldoon and others, while the development of the young Munster back-rower John O'Sullivan and the current Leinster player Des Dillon (like Victor Costello before him) shows how Connacht can be used to the benefit of everyone.

It has also gradually began to dawn on the Friends of Connacht that the IRFU committee are abrogating on their resonsibilities to the game in all four provinces and all 32 counties, that the union are defying their own laws of the game, and that they may well have a legal case worth pursuing.

Dr Malcom Little, of UCG, read from The Laws of the IRFU when taking the rostrum on Wednesday night, and specifically Law 3, entitled objects. "The objects of the union shall be, a) to administer the game as its governing body to promote, foster and develop the game in all its branches . . . and, b) to assist and further the efforts of the branches and affiliated clubs."

Little thus deduced that the committee's proposals to disband Connacht "are totally and utterly flying in the face of the objectives of the union".

However, it's the failure of the IRFU to explore other cost-saving measures, which by comparison would not sacrifice one of its four limbs, which really angers Connacht people and Little also agreed that Connacht have to help come up with alternative cost-saving measures, firstly the phasing down of entertainment around international games.

"I personally believe that post-match team dinners are an anachronism in the professional game," said Little. "And the last people that want to go to these dinners and put on tuxedos are the players themselves."

Ne'er a truer word.

He also argued that the teams should travel back from away Six Nations matches on the nights of the games. "You don't see Arsenal or Manchester United hanging around Budapest having post-match dinners on a Wednesday evening. You don't see the Irish soccer team doing the same thing."

Little also maintained that Ireland should emulate Wales in ceasing to play A matches, as well as streamlining the union's administration of the amateur game.

During the meeting with the four-man IRFU delegation which is behind the move to disband Connacht, namely the chief executive Philip Browne, the union's director of rugby Eddie Wigglesworth, the treasurer John Lyons and the accountant Conor Kirwan, met the Connacht Branch, Feely asked them who had conducted an impact study into the consequences of disbanding Team Connacht?

The answer, of course, was that they hadn't.

"Most of all, the psyche in the province will become totally negative and people will just walk away from the game," says Feely.

"In a nutshell I can't see the game suriving. But you wouldn't be involved in Connacht rugby for 25 years if you weren't an optimist. It just doesn't make sense, having invested so much money in the province, to then have no return on that investment. I hope that sense will prevail."