Connacht chance to cash in on big time
CONNACHT rugby gets a glimpse of a brighter future tonight when they take on Jonny Wilkinson and his star-laden Toulon side in front of 8,000 supporters at the Galway Sportsground (7.45).
Michael Bradley's men are chasing a spot in the Heineken Cup next season and need to beat the Top 14-leaders in tonight's Challenge Cup semi-final and then win the final against either Cardiff or Wasps to book their place in European rugby's premier competition.
The capacity has been increased from it usual 5,000 and the match been sold out since the start of the week, indicating the type of attendances Connacht could regularly attract if they reach the Heineken Cup for the first time.
Only Munster and Leinster and the more high-profile Challenge Cup sides bring supporters out in force, but regular visits from Europe's elite Heineken Cup teams would have huge implications for attendances with plans under way to build a 600-seater stand for season ticket-holders.
Sponsorship and merchandising would also increase while the province's IRFU budget, currently around €2.5m, could be increased by as much as a million.
But all of this depends on beating Toulon tonight and making the final with Connacht rated 9/4 outsiders against a team which operates a budget €14.5m more than their opponents.
Coach Bradley has named his strongest available side with captain John Muldoon set for a seismic battle with opposite number Joe van Niekerk.
Meanwhile, Ulster have confirmed they are now in negotiations with the Stormers regarding the temporary release of Springbok prop BJ Botha for the remainder of the Super 14 season.
While the province have not yet agreed to release Botha to the South African side, the move could still go through with the major issue for Ulster being the risk of injury.