Bradley brigade can ruffle Toulon feathers
Published 30/04/2010 | 05:00
The flags adorn Salthill promenade; Quincentennial Bridge is a glorious blaze of green, yet Heaven alone knows if this is the sort of carnival soon destined to turn into an empty field.
Connacht welcome Toulon to the Sportsground tonight and, with the promise of bad weather rolling in off the Atlantic, there is a soft murmur of uprising in the Galway air. The French, logically, should win this Amlin Challenge Cup semi-final rather easily, of course.
They are bank-rolled by a comic book publisher to the annual tune of €16.5m, boast a galaxy of global superstars (some of whom have been blithely left at home) and currently top the French Championship. Connacht, meanwhile, survive on a €2.5m IRFU stipend and sit rock bottom of the Magners League.
Yet, there is a peculiar chemistry to this fixture, a sense that something implausible might just happen if Toulon find tonight's surrounds a little too primitive and drafty.
Former Connacht and Ireland player Noel Mannion likens tonight's tie to Hereford United's in the '72 FA Cup against Newcastle. Maybe, just maybe, Connacht will find a Ronnie Radford in their midst.
"They'll have a cut off them," Mannion promises of the western province. "Your heart would tell you that anyway. The French would be used to luxury, the best of everything. So, it'll be an eye-opener for them coming to the Sportsground with one side of the pitch completely open and, in all likelihood, the rain tipping down.
"On the law of averages, Toulon should certainly win. But, on the law of averages, Leinster should have beaten Connacht too. And that didn't happen. This isn't a bad Connacht side, you know."
There is, of course, also a rather stark -- if unspoken -- sub-plot to tonight's business. Beneath the glamour of hosting a big European night resides the world of worry for Connacht's future. There has long been palpable unease in their relationship with the IRFU and almost endless speculation of what that unease might spawn.
Emotions, generally, need a quick dip in ice when this subject gets an airing. Many Connacht supporters believe the Union still plans to wind up the province as a professional entity and they await the findings of the recent governance and operations review with serious foreboding.
The march on Lansdowne Road in 2003 forced the Union to reconsider a planned cull, yet Connacht remains a franchise existing, essentially, on the breadline. In the seven years since that march, their commercial circumstance hasn't significantly altered.
And apprehension for the province's future was never likely to be subdued by the IRFU's recent decision to permit only one-year contract extensions for those on Connacht's books. It smacked of removing the furniture and fittings before putting up a house for sale.
CEO Gerry Kelly admits he is aware of the lingering concern, but insists the recent review (which Connacht themselves requested) doesn't have sinister implications.
"I'm confident there is a long-term future for Connacht," says Kelly. "Actually, I think there's a general acceptance that Ireland needs four (professional) teams in order to produce a better Irish squad. The object of the review is simply to see how we can try and build the Connacht brand in conjunction with the IRFU.
"We realise that we need to improve the brand the way the professional game is moving everywhere."
Eight thousand people will pour past 'sold out' signs into the Sportsground tonight, creating something of an illusion. For Connacht's threadbare support base remains the very reason that questions linger over their future.
Some believe that closure on this issue will only be reached if the province qualifies for next season's Heineken Cup. They still have two possible routes; win the Amlin Challenge Cup themselves or slip through on neighbours' coat-tails should Munster or Leinster triumph in the Heineken final at Stade de France on May 22.
Connacht qualifying for the premier European competition would, undoubtedly, force the Union's hand, though -- morally -- the province's bargaining position won't be great if that qualification amounts to a gift rather than their own achievement.
In their current predicament -- the Union insists that the imposition of one-year contracts on the province was merely a call "to draw breath" -- Connacht and the Heineken Cup looks like a potential marriage from Hell.
Budgets and contracts for next season have already been signed off on, yet there is nothing to stop the province applying for extra funding to reflect a change of circumstance.
Yet, no matter what adjustments might be made in a pretty cramped time-frame, the worry for Connacht would be that they simply become the whipping boys of Europe which, as one former player put it this week, "could put us back 20 years".
An IRFU insider insisted this week: "Rugby in Connacht will survive, no question. It's just in what format that needs to be decided."
Hardly reassuring words for those flocking to the Sportsground tonight, though his explanation for Connacht's vulnerability should not be disregarded either. "Look," he said, "if all those people that marched down Lansdowne Road in 2003 were regulars through the Sportsground turnstiles, there wouldn't be a problem. But what has happened since that day in terms of Connacht support? Nothing.
"This whole subject is beautifully emotive and the national media likes to depict it as the dreadful IRFU coming after little old Connacht.
"But the simple problem is that Connacht is generating no money. It's not washing its face commercially. The amateur game is thriving down there, the numbers are right up in schools and clubs, but, as far as the pro game is concerned, they're just not paying their way. If you have no real commercial programme to be exploited, can you logically run a professional programme?"
Even locally, concern is expressed about different aspects of the Connacht brand. Many believe that there are too many foreign imports on the playing staff; that Athlone's Dubarry Park might be a more easily accessible base and there is a sense, too, that local fixtures should dove-tail better with Connacht games.
An estimated 3,000 attended the lunchtime contest with Bourgoin on April 10, yet the game clashed with a crucial AIL relegation play-off between Buccaneers and Young Munster in Athlone, as well as a vital qualifier for Monivea in their battle for League status. There was also an under-age rugby blitz being played that day in Ballina.
It is this apparent absence of what one player describes as "joined-up thinking" that gives a faintly careless air to the business dynamics of Connacht's existence.
Kelly admits that they did consider taking tonight's game to a bigger, neutral venue like Thomond Park to avail of greater revenue streams, but loyalty to local business support ultimately dissuaded them.
"It was discussed," he reveals, "but if you're depending on getting Connacht support -- both commercially and in terms of fans -- then it wouldn't have been a very sensible move to take the business away from your heartland. That factor weighed heavily with us and I think we're reaping the rewards.
"There's been lots of very positive feedback from the business community as well as the general public in Galway for doing that."
Certainly, there can be no denying the sense of a city letting the glamour of European rugby settle upon it like a comfortable duvet this evening. There is electricity in the Galway air as some minted gods of the game like Jonny Wilkinson, Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe and Sonny Bill Williams alight from their privileged perch into a raw, gritty and faintly put-upon environment.
Toulon -- even though clearly prioritising domestic issues -- are considered a prohibitive 11/10 to win the Amlin Cup outright; while Connacht are rank outsiders at a neglected 13/1. Yet, Bourgoin arrived at the Sportsground fresh from a victory over Toulouse and still went away defeated.
The sense of hunt will be palpable then for Michael Bradley's last Sportsground game as coach, but, win or lose, speculation on Connacht's future will continue to roll on like the rain.
Mannion admits: "Long-term, I would be worried. Put it this way, I'd be in a much happier place if I could be guaranteed that Connacht would get Heineken Cup qualification on their own merit. If they do it under their own steam, they'd be in a lot stronger position to negotiate.
"But the way budgets are, I wouldn't be too sure now. The truth is, it's up to Connacht and their supporters to put them on the map as regards getting bodies into the stadium. And that hasn't been happening on a regular basis. I'm as guilty as anyone else.
"We're all guilty. But, if we genuinely believe there's something there, we should be working hard on getting people in to support it. The knock-on effect of that would be money rolling in and Connacht being able to negotiate stronger with the IRFU. But, really, we need Heineken Cup qualification this year."
Only time will tell whether tonight marks a beginning or an end.