Second coming for Eoin Griffin - Connacht’s prodigal son
Outside centre lines out for province in Pro12 after spending two years with London Irish
Eoin Griffin takes part in Connacht Rugby pre-season training at the Sportgrounds, Galway. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho
Today will be a particularly special day for Eoin Griffin and his family. The 25-year-old Galway-born and reared outside centre makes his first start in his prodigal second coming after a two year sojourn with London Irish. Rivers of water have passed under the bridges of Galway in that time.
He wouldn’t be human if he didn’t find last season’s Pro12 final and Connacht’s coronation as champions at least a little bittersweet. Whereas his parents, Mary and Hugh, travelled to Murrayfield for that glorious day in May, Griffin was unable to do so and thus watched the game from his home in London, with his sisters Eavan and Emma, along with her husband, Barry, and their five-month-old Rory.
“We had to keep it down as we made him cry when Tiernan O’Halloran scored the first try,” recalls Griffin, but even then the magnitude of Connacht’s achievement didn’t really hit home until the final moments.
“It didn’t really resonate with me properly until a couple of minutes before the end when the TV showed Loughs (Ronan Loughney) on the sideline, and he had a tear in his eye. The game was all but over. And it hit me: ‘Jeez, they’ve actually won this’.’ Then when Mul (John Muldoon) lifted the trophy, I was just so happy for those lads who had toiled for so long. Really good friends of mine had finally gotten what they deserved. After some long, dark old times, much darker than before I came on the scene, they had finally got their day in the sun.”
After playing 71 games in five years for his native province, invariably Connacht supporters wonder if Griffin now regrets going to London Irish at the age of 23 two years ago, not least as they were somewhat injury ravaged seasons and culminated in the club’s relegation from the Premiership, but he doesn’t think like that.
“I’ve been asked ‘if I knew now would I have gone?’ but if I could go back in time I still think I would have gone to London. I got a lot out of that, and who knows if I had stayed maybe Connacht wouldn’t have won the Pro12. You don’t know. These things are completely hypothetical.”
He describes his two years as good in one sense and frustrating in another. No sooner had Griffin arrived than he was injured in pre-season, sidelining him until November, and that is especially frustrating for a new player at any club. Nonetheless, he was a regular for the remainder of that campaign.
Unlike the Pro12, the Premiership didn’t start until after the World Cup, which made for a long pre-season, and a high turnover in playing personnel was compounded by the decision to replace Brian Smith as head coach with the ex-Waikato Chiefs coach Tom Coventry.
London Irish won only four League matches all season and were relegated
for the first time since 1994. As for Griffin, three games into his second season, he tore his bicep tendon and on the verge of returning three months later against Bath, he tore it again in the gym, sidelining him for the remainder of the campaign. Throw in the grim and ultimately futile battle against relegation, and Griffin will have better years.
“No matter how much video analysis and little pointers you give in meetings and stuff, you feel very helpless. It’s very frustrating to be sitting there and not be able to contribute at all, week-in, week-out, and you’re just doing tedious rehab exercises, or stuck in a sling.”
“Although we had World Cup winners in our team for whatever reason it just never gelled and the pressure kept building and building. It was a tough place to be, to be honest. But from chatting to the lads, they seem to have turned a corner in the pre-season and are enjoying themselves again. I don’t think there was a whole lot of enjoyment in the rugby last year. London Irish are too big a club to be in the Championship.”
The first year had been enjoyable too, Griffin playing 21 games.
“Every team had at least one or two superstars, or enormous ball carriers in the pack or whatever. Every game was so competitive. It is definitely more attritional. There’s a lot more mauling off line-outs, there’s a lot more scrumming for penalties, more forward arm wrestles. But within that you have Aaron Mauger at Leicester, changing how they play. Harlequins have always been a high tempo side. Exeter are playing incredibly high tempo rugby. Wasps too, and whatever big hotshot southern hemisphere player is going they’ve probably signed him. It’s a tough league and I really enjoyed playing in it; it just would have been nice to have played a little bit more.”
Despite how it panned out, Griffin believes the experience will make him a better player. “Yes definitely, even from playing with and against different players. I’m two years older now, hopefully two years wiser.”
He’d been at Connacht for five seasons and had grown up in Galway, but wanted a fresh challenge. “I just thought I’d regret it if I didn’t go. I didn’t feel I was getting very far with the Irish set-up, so I thought ‘why not?’ Going there was a step out of my comfort zone, and even living in London was so different. I did enjoy my time there but there’s a lot of regret in terms of what happened on the pitch.”
“I found Richmond a little bit similar to Galway; one main street and everything off it. But then all you had to do was hop on a train in 15 minutes you’re in Waterloo, and at the hub of this massive city.”
He remembers his first weekend in London, as he and Conor Gilsenan headed to the centre of London to meet friends. “Two paddies in London just got lost in Waterloo trying to find the right tube, like two dopes wandering around. But I got used to it, and there was always something to do on your day off.”
With the help of the citymapper app, he mastered his way around London by about Christmas of his first season. “Although I did end up in the wrong place on a number of occasions.”
Helpfully too, his older brother Hugh graduated from the University of Brighton in Eastbourne and began life as a physio with a job in London at the same time Griffin moved to London, so they house-shared for a year in Richmond and then a year in Twickenham.
And no Irishman in London would be without friends. “If I was ever a bit homesick, I could go over to Highbury and see a few of my friends from Galway and grab a cup of Barrys tea.”
He also managed four or five trips home, including both Christmases. “Galway is a special place, I have to say. As much as I wanted to try London, I loved coming home and since I’ve been back I’ve definitely noticed a lot more Connacht jerseys. There’s a big old buzz around the place. I’ve settled back into the squad. There’s plenty of familiar faces, albeit with small changes in how things are done, but not an awful lot. People are a little bit more confident in putting messages across.”
Indeed, he’s been particularly struck by the increased confidence of players he’d previously known in the academy, and more of a winning mentality, as opposed to players coming into a team that was invariably near the foot of the table.
“They’ve come into a team where the standards are constantly very high, and you can see it in the way lads are training. Even though the pre-season has been a little bit shorter, it’s been bloody sharp.”
His 16-week recuperation from his second bicep operation was completed just before Connacht’s return to pre-season at the end of June. Hence, in addition to a full pre-season, Griffin played his first game in nine months when playing 40 minutes against Montpellier and took part in the training games against Clontarf and last weekend in Sale. “I’ve had a rest, essentially, for eight months, so I’m raring to go now.”
“First and foremost I’m a Connacht fan, so my brother and I would watch any crappy on-line stream we could find, for a Connacht-Zebre game in Italy or whatever else. The way they played was great to watch and effective; they kept racking up win after win. There’s a lot of structure behind it but once you get it and know it off, it’s a really enjoyable way to play.”
He’s chatted with Lam about his goals and hopes for the season. First off, it will be about playing games, and taking it from there.
“This is a new season now, and the boys are all still pretty hungry, but I’ve won nothing so I’m pretty hungry as well, and I’m looking forward to hopefully winning something this year if we can.”