Keith Duggan: Outsiders of Irish rugby crash through front door

Connacht have become beating heart of west – and an inspiration to their GAA brethren

The Connacht players were still in the changing rooms at Murrayfield when a video was posted to Joe Canning's Twitter page on Saturday evening. It showed Eoin Lynch, the Portumna hurler, sitting in the stands and lacing up a pair or rugby boots while his cinematographer friend offered a commentary in a Galway accent so thick you could spread salsa on it.

“Can Eoin Lynch wear Robbie Henshaw’s boots? Yes, he can. The next Connacht 13.”

Canning also posted Ronan O’Gara’s neat summation – Connacht are the new All-Blacks – and expressed his own congratulations with the salute: The west is awake.

Anyone who has ever driven through Portumna will know it as a handsome town with an old-money boulevard and a wonderful location on the Shannon and as a town that seems very far removed from Galway city. It has produced two of Galway's most recognisable and expressive contemporary sports stars in Canning and Connacht's dauntless number eight – they may as well just retire the number after this – and captain, John Muldoon.

Canning's sentiments echoed those of Muldoon a week ago, who talked of watching the grainy, imperishable footage of Joe McDonagh singing The West's Awake on the steps of the Hogan Stand minutes after Galway had won its first senior hurling title since 1923.

The unexpected death of McDonagh – former GAA president, raconteur and sort of living spirit of the West of Ireland – deeply affected not just the sporting community in Galway but people across the province. John Muldoon was two years old when McDonagh sang on that September Sunday in 1980.

He couldn’t possibly have any real-time memory of the event. That didn’t matter. Any Galway child – boy or girl – who grew up in the 1980s would have seen and heard that clip so often that they probably feel they were right there on the steps with McDonagh.

What made Muldoon’s tribute so powerful was that it was entirely natural. He wasn’t being a model professional here in name-checking a significant figure in west of Ireland sport.

He was talking about a moment that somehow came to represent the contradictory forces at work for people who come from Galway; from Connacht; from the west. Winning that hurling final was a euphoric moment but the air and lyrics of the song are haunting and mournful.

The two abiding sports narratives in the west of Ireland have been Mayo's quest for the Sam Maguire, on-going since 1951 and Galway's search for the magic combination which would secure a first All-Ireland hurling title since 1988. Since he broke through the senior ranks to rapturous acclaim, Joe Canning has shipped most of the responsibility in delivering that title. It is a burden that most people would find intolerable.

Minor irritation

Those stories have been on the front burner. Connacht rugby, meantime, just got on with things with the vague sense that their existence was a minor irritation for the IRFU.

When Eric Elwood announced his retirement from Connacht, he spoke of his unhappiness about the doubts hanging over the future of the club. Elwood's emergence as an out-and-out Connacht player capable of commanding the outhalf position for Ireland in the early 1990s gave his words authority.

“I am very passionate about this. About being a Galway and a Connacht man,” he said in an interview with this newspaper.

“What I achieved in those days, getting to play outhalf for Ireland, I am proud of it. I stood for Ireland and heard the national anthem. All that talk about four proud provinces and now they want to get rid of one? This is a small island and they are trying to end the hopes of the schoolchildren where I am from of one day playing for Ireland?”

That was in April 2005. The previous season, Connacht had responded to heightened threats that their status as a provincial team was about to be disbanded by qualifying for the semi-final of the European Challenge Cup under Michael Bradley.

They played Harlequins – whose team included three stars the west of Ireland team just weren't able to keep: Gavin Duffy, Johnny O'Connor and Colm Rigney.

The team’s supporters always steeled themselves for news that their brightest prospects were to be picked off by bigger teams. But just being there was typical of Connacht’s response to adversity.

The barest sketch of their history is a story of survival ever since the Connacht branch of the IRFU was formed in 1885. Elwood's first big rugby experience was playing against the All Blacks at the age of 19. He remembers bits about the game and plenty about having pints with Grant Fox in Moran’s on the Weir.

Ian Kirkpatrick’s All Blacks had played the Sportsground in ’74; the David Campese-era Australians played Connacht there in November of 1996 and found themselves subjected to the westerners' mad fun 15-man lineout.

The province has produced some splendid teams – the Galwegians' mid-50s team were as good as was to be found in the country – and they have long provided a short list of international cult heroes: Tony O'Sullivan, Ray McLoughlin, Noel Mannion, Ciarán Fitzgerald, Simon Geoghegan, Elwood, O'Connor, Duffy, Robbie Henshaw and when the anticipated ascension of Bundee Aki to national green happens, he will be regarded as more Irish than the Irish themselves.

There have been auspicious moments, in other words, through decades of being up against it. But there was always the sense that they were at a remove from the establishment of Irish rugby.

“I would very much have been aware of my background, especially as Tom Clancy was the only other lad on it when I first joined,” Noel Mannion told this newspaper of his feelings when he first joined the international squad.

“Now, I got on with the players and was treated well but there was a sense of belonging to another environment.”

That’s at the heart of it. Geographically and spiritually, Connacht rugby has always been out there. For decades, that was perceived as a problem. The last couple of seasons appear to have flipped that into its unique attraction.

The improvements at the Sportsground – nothing fancy mind – have made it the most atmospheric rugby ground in the country.

Pat Lam’s vision – you don’t have to defend so much if you are throwing the ball all day – was so bold and simple that it has stunned all other rugby coaches. It took extraordinary chutzpah to get the least-moneyed team in the league to play as if they doubted nothing about themselves.

Fighting bigger forces

This season’s progression started as a low rumble through the province but ever since that thrilling win against Munster in Thomond Park last November, there has been a growing sense that they are representing everything that Connacht people from all five counties have felt when it comes to sport: that they are fighting bigger forces, greater odds, that it's different in the west.

Who knows how many Connacht fans got to Edinburgh by hook or by crook for Saturday’s game: the figure will be inflated tenfold as the years go by. And who can guess at the impact the homecoming in Galway will have on the game? Edinburgh on Saturday was beyond, far beyond, the most fabulous dreams of Connacht’s season-in-season-out brigade.

That it came at Leinster’s expense just made it sweeter for the supporters and you can be sure that the province’s 2016 rising – for that is what it was – will be referenced plenty in dressing-rooms in Mayo, Roscommon, Sligo and Leitrim this year.

You can be sure the Galway hurlers will have Connacht on their minds. Nobody can quite believe it but the most put-upon rugby team of them all have become the beating heart of the west.

What a turnaround. Muldoon finds himself as an overnight hero after 275 games. All of a sudden, Connacht rugby are the national darlings and they are everyone’s property. Here they are, champions of the land. Everyone will think and talk about Connacht differently after this.

Keith Duggan

Keith Duggan

Keith Duggan is a features writer with The Irish Times