Commercial input crucial to IRFU's Western revival
A formal interprovincial transfer system is key if plan is to work, says Brendan Fanning
One of the more interesting elements in the fight to save Connacht Rugby in 2003 was the input of a man called Mike de Haast. At the time, the West had woken to the sound of knives being sharpened in Lansdowne Road, a scary exercise motivated by the predictions of ghastly deficits on the IRFU's books for 2003 and 2004.
De Haast was manager of the Radisson Hotel in Galway where the protest movement had got up and running with a monster meeting. The hotel were sponsors of Connacht rugby and De Haast, being a typical South African, was a rugby nut.
Late in the day he floated the idea of a group of businessmen taking the burden that was Connacht on their backs, and relieving the IRFU of the load. At which point the union said they would battle on. Perhaps it was coincidental that the prospect of outside interference focused the minds of the union committee, or maybe they had resolved to plough on with the four proud provinces by that stage.
Either way, his rough idea of a commercially driven arm of the IRFU came to pass last week with the announcement that Connacht would have a professional game board comprising six men, only one of whom is an elected representative of the Connacht branch.
At first glance, it is, at last, what the union were so reluctant to do in the early years of professionalism: to call in help from experts who have an emotional attachment to the game.
Initially you could understand their reluctance to hand over the reins to anyone for fear of what direction the game would be taken in, for at first nobody knew what was going to happen. But as time moved on, the commercial imperatives of the pro game were obvious, and still the IRFU were not prepared to share the driver's seat. How ironic then that after all these years their journey down this route should start in a province which privately they have wanted rid of at various stages in recent history.
So Connacht is a test case, for none of Leinster, Munster or Ulster have been granted this sort of leave. The next question is what they can make of it. There are two critical criteria: players and facilities.
Central to the new plan is the formalisation of a structure for sending players to Galway from the other provinces. This has been an aspiration for years, albeit in the way that governments hope to restore services that have been cut as soon as circumstances allow.
In this case the circumstances were that delivery receded further with every advance of the Magners League, for it gave the big three provinces credible reasons for retaining staff in the face of increased games. Even so we have enough players in our system to feed Connacht and replace those who take that option with players coming through the other academies. This will work only if the IRFU monitor and manage the process as keenly as they mind their pennies. We'll see.
Then there is the question of facilities. There are still a couple of years to run on the planning permission for a new stand at the Sportsground.
With a capacity of 660 seats, it would be in addition to the terrace on the clubhouse side of the ground, and would further develop it as a rugby venue more than a track for the running of hounds.
The fact that Connacht are tenants of Bord na gCon has long been a complicating factor. The relationship has improved over the years but unless the rugby camp can get more control over the match-day operation then they will never reach their potential.
And surely this new departure is about just that: allowing Connacht reach their potential, and in turn becoming a meaningful feeder into the Ireland squad.
It has been a long time coming, and indeed arrived when we least expected it, but at last we have meat on the bones of an idea first run up the flagpole by a South African, when Connacht were in their darkest hour.