Willie Ruane, the Connacht chief executive, has described the proposed €30 million redevelopment of the Sportsground into a modern 12,000 capacity stadium as "critical" to the province's future.
This followed Connacht’s announcement on Monday that after a three-year process the province has reached an agreement with their co-tenants, the Irish Greyhound Board, and the owners of the land, the Galway Agricultural and Sports Society, to develop a new stadium, which will also include a new high-performance centre and a new greyhound racing track.
When you really start to make progress, you need momentum to carry it on to the next level and then you need something like this, which really is a game changer
Monday’s announcement would be a fitting legacy to the Guinness Pro12 triumph of three seasons ago. Furthermore, if it doesn’t happen now, it may never do.
“It’s critical because momentum is everything,” Ruane told The Irish Times on Monday night. “When you really start to make progress, you need momentum to carry it on to the next level and then you need something like this, which really is a game changer.”
“We receive the same equal funding from the IRFU as the other provinces, despite all the misnomers out there. The difference is they have the capacity to generate serious commercial clout, whether that’s [attendance] gates or whatever else. If we’re to really compete and be sustainable we need to be able to create that financial capacity, which would allow us to invest in our grassroots game. So it is absolutely critical.”
Connacht’s proposal would be through a combination of public funds, ie the Government’s Large Scale Sports Infrastructure Fund, and private funding. To that end, the facility would also be made available for the hosting of other sporting events. Connacht don’t specify how much of the estimated €30 million would come from private backing or Government funding, but no less than the proposed upgrading of the RDS and other sports stadia projects around the country, the latter is clearly critical.
Connacht might rightly hope that their project would have a regional appeal, and their statement stresses it is aligned to the National Planning Framework, Project Ireland 2040 and the recently launched National Sports Policy. Supporting the redevelopment of the Sportsground in Galway would be a tangible demonstration of that commitment, and Connacht believe there is significant cross-party support for this to happen.
While some will contend that this was a missed opportunity to build an out of town stadium, perhaps in conjunction with other sports, the Sportsground has been Connacht’s home since 1926. In recent years especially, their home games attract a huge walk-up contingent and are synonymous with Galway’s image as a friendly party town.
“We genuinely went through a rigorous process,” said Ruane. “We actually stepped back and looked at all our options, including out of town. The reality is that the experience of coming to a Connacht rugby match in Galway is a different experience from attending a GAA match, and the reality is we’re not just competing for hardened fans, we’re competing for casual fans, whether that be on Friday or Saturday evening.”
“That’s the target market for us. We’re ingrained in the city. It’s a win-win for the city. It’s a win-win for us. It’s close to the bus and train terminals and it’s close to the side of the city which allows the rest of the province to get into us pretty easily.”
Connacht looked at countless examples of sporting stadia close to and on the outskirts of cities in the UK according to Ruane. “We also surveyed our fans and the city centre option was much more of an attractive proposition for us.”
Furthermore, an independent economic impact study commissioned by the province in 2016 showed that Connacht’s games generated €34.4 million for the local economy. That is not a small sum in the context of the region, and would obviously rise significantly were this 12,000 stadium to come to pass.
Every single cup final from under-13s to Senior Cup takes place in the Sportsground. We want the Sportsground to be Connacht's Aviva.
Certainly when one thinks of the upgraded stadia in Dublin and also Limerick, Cork and Belfast, a modern, state-of-the-art facility in Galway would go some way to rectifying that imbalance.
Another aspect is that the Sportsground’s redevelopment would contain an all-weather pitch, whether completely 4G or a hybrid, which would be better suited both to the western Ireland climate in the winter months and the brand of rugby with which Connacht are now identified. This would also enable the Sportsground to continue being a primary home for rugby at all levels in the province.
“It’s a key feature of what we want to do,” said Ruane. “Every single cup final from under-13s to Senior Cup takes place in the Sportsground. We want the Sportsground to be Connacht’s Aviva. In April, we could have a Pro14 match on a Saturday and a triple header on a Sunday. If that coincides with a particularly bad patch of weather, that puts us under pressure.”
Pending Government funding support and planning permission, the hope is that building of the new high performance centre would start next year. On foot of that being constructed, the two new stands to replace the main stand and the Clan Terrace would be built one in turn, so as to allow Connacht to continue playing in the Sportsground, albeit with a reduced capacity for a season.