Gerry Thornley: History tells us Connacht are justified in feeling hard done by

From refereeing decisions to blatant gerrymandering the province has suffered

Connacht’s Conor Fitzgerald, Jack Aungier, Jack Carty and Shane Delahunt dejected after Saturday’s loss to Munster. Photo: Bryan Keane/Inpho

Connacht’s Conor Fitzgerald, Jack Aungier, Jack Carty and Shane Delahunt dejected after Saturday’s loss to Munster. Photo: Bryan Keane/Inpho

 

Back in the mid-noughties and not long after Connacht had survived the IRFU’s plans to disband their professional team, Matt Williams was asked for an Australian perspective on the treatment and status of the western province. He ventured that there was an “institutionalised racism against Connacht” in the IRFU and Irish rugby.

Strong words, which possibly might sound excessive, even more so nowadays. Indeed, one senior IRFU figure took exception to such an extent that he felt he’d been personally called a racist, but it wasn’t directed at any one individual. Williams was just making the point that there had always been a long-held, collective view among the other three provinces that Connacht were the poor relations of Irish rugby, to be tolerated rather than nurtured.

Consider this historical slant.

For decades at the IRFU annual general meeting of the IRFU, six members of the 22-man committee were elected by ballot. It was an open, fair, democratic vote. Two delegates were nominated from Leinster, Ulster and Munster, and one from Connacht. In other words, six were elected out of seven candidates. And for decades it just so happened that the six were comprised of two each form Leinster, Munster and Ulster.

The only time the AGM elected a Connacht delegate was in 1980. Even that was an amusing exception which bucked the trend of decades before and subsequently. 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 would always vote to ensure that they filled the six places on the committee. It was gerrymandering by any other name and tells us much about prevailing attitudes in the other three provinces toward Connacht.

In 2002, just for the heck of it, Connacht decided to put forward two delegates. When the two names were read out, along with the proposers and seconders, it so bemused one Leinster man that he asked where they were from. “They’re from Connacht,” he was informed from the top table, which understandably prompted objections from one of the Connacht delegates. But it had clarified the equation. The ‘non-Connacht six’ were duly elected.

Party line

At another AGM, a Connacht Branch member was sitting beside a good friend from the Leinster Branch, and recalls another Leinsterman coming over to remind him to toe the party line when it came to the vote.

Quite why the IRFU bothered with such a ritual is a moot point. But the pretence at democracy served to demonstrate the almost institutionalised racism which existed against Connacht. Belatedly, the IRFU have moved to rectify this and ensure equal representation for all four provinces with a new law which came into effect at last July’s AGM.

Each province now has four nominees to represent the branch on the union committee with the provision that going forward, (and in particular from 2023) one such nominee should be female. Both Munster and Connacht nominated a female as one of their four at the July meeting this year.

In much of Irish life, not just rugby, Connacht harbour grievances over their treatment. At a Friends of Connacht rally in the Raddisson Hotel to mobilise opposition to the IRFU’s plans to have the province’s professional team disbanded in January 2003, the former Galway All-Ireland-winning hurling captain Joe Connolly was in vintage form when taking to the rostrum.

“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?” People from the other three provinces couldn’t understand, he ventured.

Last Saturday at Thomond Park, as Andy Friend justifiably pointed out afterwards, the referee and TMO spent far more time using replays to correctly deduce that Tiernan O’Halloran’s one-handed flick for Mack Hansen to touch down in the corner had been marginally forward than they did after Tadhg Beirne had been clearly in front of Rory Scannell’s crosskick. Yet it was by no means the worst injustice heaped upon Connacht.

Back in October 2014 at what was then the Liberty Stadium, Connacht were on the cusp of ending a five-match losing sequence when they led the defending champions the Ospreys by 17-15. Shaun Connor had just missed a questionable penalty for the home side and when Paul Warwick delayed a restart by passing the ball to Keith Matthews, who then passed the ball back to him, Scottish referee Rob Dickson awarded a penalty for time-wasting! Such a law doesn’t even exist!

Shaun Connor kicked the penalty and an hour later on the bus to the airport the Connacht players and management were still numb in disbelief.

In May 2015, Connacht led Gloucester 25-18 with a minute remaining

when John Muldoon took the ball into contact near halfway. He was tackled by Tom Palmer of Gloucester, who then did not roll away, but Poite instead swiftly penalised Muldoon for not releasing.

The entire BT commentary team agreed it was a blatantly incorrect decision, yet it was compounded by Poite and his TMO then awarding the home side a try - despite video evidence showing Billy Twelvetrees blocked and also held Connacht’s Andrew Browne by the arm - after just one viewing. Gloucester levelled and won in extra-time. There are plenty like those.

Yet for Friend to describe overlooking the offside prior to Cloete’s try as “inexcusable” is something Connacht strive to avoid doing for fear of being called bleaters, or the knowledge that it probably might do them more harm than good.

Overseas referee

In March 2014, Pat Lam expressed his grievances about some decisions by referee Neil Paterson after Connacht’s 32-30 defeat away by the Scarlets. In their next game they went to Belfast and were beaten 58-12 by Ulster on a night when Welsh referee Ian Davies did not award Connacht one solitary penalty in the entire game.

Yet in general Connacht prefer when they have an overseas referee rather than an Irish one for an interpro derby. One leading Connacht official often felt that for a younger, up-and-coming referee it would be particularly difficult to preside over a Connacht win against one of their provincial rivals. That somehow this went against the natural order of things. They have a particular fear of one domestic referee currently, but then again that wouldn’t be the first time.

Of course, for the so-called smaller clubs, counties, provinces or international teams in a variety of team sports, the feeling has long since existed that on balance the decisions go the way of their bigger counterparts, especially when they are at home. Penalties at Old Trafford and all that.

So maybe Connacht supporters, and management and players alike, can have a tendency to be a little paranoid. But then again, they’re probably entitled to be.

PS The UCD front-rower Emmet Burns has been undergoing chemotherapy treatment for Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, a treatable and curable blood cancer, for the past six months. It has been very tough for him, but before his final chemotherapy session, he is doing a fundraiser on the 25th October to raise awareness and money for the Haematology Department in St. Vincent’s Hospital and the Irish Cancer Society. Please support him and share the link https://lnkd.in/eTWQXBK9 #EmmetsTenTonneChallenge

gthornley@irishtimes.com

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