Michael Swift returns as career comes to emotional end

Lock back from injury to honour his father and say goodbye to ‘special’ Connacht

Michael Swift describes Connacht's game at home to the Ospreys on Saturday as a bit surreal, which in his case is putting it mildly. It is only his second game of a season largely spent on the sidelines due to a knee injury, and his first since last September, while it could well be his last if Connacht fail to make the playoffs for a Champions Cup place. In what has been a trying campaign for the province's longest-serving and most-capped player, both on and off the pitch, it is laden with emotional baggage.

On February 1st, Connacht beat Treviso 53-5 at the Sportsground and among the faithful in the Clan Terrace was Swift’s father Jim, a Wexford man who boxed at underage level for Ireland, before moving to London and working for the London Underground. The following day he passed away suddenly.

Four years ago he and Swift’s mother relocated to Galway, and his dad never missed a game. The 37-year-old Swift, a Londoner, vowed he would make it back to don the Connacht jersey that he has come to love for 15 seasons, in honour of his dad and to say a proper farewell to the supporters who have adopted him. His mother has also promised him she will attend a game for the first time.

“The season culminating, my career finishing, getting married in June, my dad passing – a lot of life-defining moments.” Tough times, especially losing his dad. “To be honest that was my main motivation,” for wanting to play at least one more time for Connacht. “And he’s buried just across the way from the Sportsground. So it’s pretty special. Just to play one last game was for him really.”


“Mum hasn’t been to a game; she hasn’t been for 20-odd years, but she’s coming this weekend, which is huge . . . there’s a lot of personal stuff going on this weekend.”

Adopted province

If this is to be his 265th and last game for Connacht, it will be tinged with sadness, but it’s also worth noting that it’s been a wonderful, 15-year career with his adopted province.

“I haven’t won silverware but I judge my career on what I’ve achieved with Connacht and how they’ve progressed. They’re in a lot better place than when I first came. If that’s to be it, then I finish a happy man.”

To play one last game is a bonus. “If you’d asked me if this was possible two months ago I would have said it wasn’t. I hyper-extended my knee way back in February and fractured it. It wasn’t coming along that well until I had a little scope done a month ago which really helped. I just always had this goal, even if it was just for one more minute, to put the jersey on again. Obviously Connacht means so much to me at this stage, and after the year I’ve had, I’m just looking forward to donning it one last time.

“Coming from that first week when I arrived in Galway and not knowing what to expect. I had Irish parents but not from the Galway or Connacht area, and with an English accent I thought I might be seen as a bit of an outsider. But from day one I was welcomed with open arms and I suppose for me it’s all to do with the supporters.

“Connacht’s in my blood now. My heart will always be in Connacht really.”

There've been plenty of highs as well as lows, notably finishing off a wondrous try in the corner against Leinster which Gavin Duffy instigated with a counter-attack when faced by 29 players in front of him. "I always get some stick for my try celebration. I was in shock to be honest with you, that's why there was no celebrating."

Special place

“Beating Harlequins [9-8] after a long winless run in Eric’s second last year, that was a huge win, off the back of 12 losses. Just the whole atmosphere of Connacht, it’s such a special place. It’s in your face. They always talk about the wind and rain, this kind of rubbish, but I like to go away from that. We have just amazing supporters, who have been through the thick and thin, and will hopefully reap the plusses now.

"But the future is bright. All the backroom staff being put in place, the marketing department. Even a few years ago the playing side was professional but the other elements of the organisation maybe weren't as strong. That's not the case any more. The PGB [Professional Game Board] have come on board and given us that impetus, and Willie Ruane is a very good CEO. I played with Willie at Galwegians, and Pat [Lam] has been fantastic as well. He's really brought that stealth and winning mentality."

“If we can beat the Ospreys it will give us a 50-per-cent-plus winning ratio for the first time ever. We’ve already got 10 wins so I think we’re heading in the right direction, and I’m sick and tired the poor fourth province. I hate that tag and hopefully we won’t be classified like that any more.”

Swift has been there through the grim times. “I marched to Dublin that day,” he says with an ironic smile of that 2003 campaign to stop the IRFU closing down Connacht as a professional entity. “That was a pretty low point, because we almost became unemployed.

"We've had seasons where we've lost a lot of games, and have never got to a European final. We came close, with that Quins double-header when Gavin [Duffy] was playing for them and possibly, maybe could have beaten Toulon at home," he says of their two Challenge Cup semi-finals. "But no, I just take a lot of positives from my career."

Swift envisages returning to the Sportsground as a supporter though the next stage in his life is likely to be in Dublin. Swift is marrying Jill Blake, from Terenure. "Her dad's a big Mary's fan so when she told him who she was dating he said: 'Oh, I've heard good things about him.' So I got the thumbs up from my prospective father-in-law."

He admits he’s not sure about what he will do next, but seems quite sanguine about it.

“I’m not quite sure yet. I was involved in a start-up two years ago, and sold that on. I can’t really see myself working in an office, nine to five. I suppose I’ve got the entrepreneurial bug, having started my own business, and when you make your first euro off your own back, there’s such a buzz. The drug is just intoxicating. So myself and Jill are going to look at a few options, and move to Dublin and set up our stall there. I’m nervous. I’ve had 15 seasons with Connacht, but it’s exciting times too.”

Hailing from Hammersmith, Swift took up rugby at London Oratory School before joining Richmond at the age of 19. But after two seasons there, Richmond went into administration after 138 years in existence.


Swift played for a season with Leeds Tykes, before being recruited by his Richmond coach,

John Kingston

, at Galwegians in 2000. “We lost to Dungannon in the semi-finals. I got a yellow card for a high tackle on

Paddy Johns

, if that’s possible,” quips Swift of an incident with the then Ireland lock. “The only person to make a high tackle on Paddy Johns.”

He made his Connacht debut that year, and looking back on those teething stages with the province is like comparing chalk with cheese.

“It’s like a completely different organisation now. When I arrived there was an old wooden shed and a small little changing room, and you count the amount of supporters. You almost knew them individually, it was that small.

“To see the progress made has been fantastic from a personal point of view, and with season tickets growing and growing, and the facilities still have room to improve but are going in the right direction, and hopefully culminating in us this season qualifying for the Champions Cup off our own back.”

Should Connacht qualify for the playoffs, and it’s a big ask, they would play Gloucester away on May 23rd, with the winners at home to the seventh-placed finisher in the Top 14 a week later.

“It’s a strange way of going into the last game of the season, thinking it might not be the last. It’s a bit surreal.” Connacht would like it to be the last game provided they finish sixth, otherwise they’d like two more.

“To qualify off our own back, this is like silverware for us. That’s how I’d quantify it. It would be huge. Leinster did us a favour on two occasions and we appreciate that. But to qualify off our own back and show our supporters we did this, and playing that first game knowing that, would be just the icing on the cake for me. I’ve not trophies or silverware, but this would be it.”

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley is Rugby Correspondent of The Irish Times