Friday 22 September 2017

End of an era as iconic 'Coat Hanger' hangs up his boots

Lion-hearted fans' favourite hails 'luck and physios' after record-breaking 268 games over 15 years

Michael Swift was born in London and began playing rugby at a high level with Richmond in the city
Michael Swift was born in London and began playing rugby at a high level with Richmond in the city

Daragh Small

Michael Swift, 'Swifty' or 'Coat Hanger' - whatever you like to call him there is no doubt he is an icon at the Sportsground.

The 37-year-old has been ever-present in Galway for 15 seasons and racked up a staggering 268 appearances for Connacht.

He will always cherish a famous try against Leinster in April 2010.

"Someone said that will be on my gravestone some day. From a personal point of view it was fantastic, but what I like about it was that it was a great team try," he recalls.

"There was a link on Twitter a couple of weeks ago. I hadn't seen it for a couple of years and it was great to see some of the old guys, and guys who had gone on to represent Ireland as well.

"But it was special to score that try from a fair distance out and with a couple of players between me and the tryline as well. I will treasure that."

Swift was born in London and began playing rugby at a high level with Richmond in the city.

Next up was a stint with Leeds Tykes but Connacht was his calling and when he joined in 2000 he fell in love with Galway. However, he could never have foreseen such a long career at the Sportsground and he believes luck played a part.

"Over the years I haven't picked up that many significant injuries. Longevity is important in my position, usually players that are still playing into their mid-to-late 30s will be guys in the front-five.

"Throughout the years I have also had a fantastic backroom team behind me and physiotherapists and conditioners getting me back to perform.

"I am sure John Muldoon now is hot on my tail. No doubt in the not too distant future he will take over that mantle. But I am really proud of having all those appearances, in the league especially."

Being the longest-serving player in the Pro12, Swift has seen it all at the Sportsground and it has been a rollercoaster ride.

It has not always been big attendances and high-class rugby during his stay - Swift has had to take the good with the bad, and he grew to appreciate the big European nights especially.

"By the time the Heineken Cup eventually came we had waited so long and I remember the very first home game against Toulouse when on the pitch the result was far from what we wanted," he says.

Spanking

"We got a bit of a spanking that night but I just saw a bit of an insight into what Connacht Rugby can be about.

"Fast-forward three years and we are getting those crowds now on a regular basis. That is what I love to see - gone are the days when you could almost count on a single hand how many people were in, before the Clan Stand when it was all open and exposed."

The results have picked up as well - when he scored that try in the 27-13 win over Leinster nearly five years ago it was a major shock and took Connacht off the bottom of the Magners League.

This season Connacht have beaten both Leinster and Munster at home, turning the Sportsground into a fortress.

Swift says the away-day victory at Stade Ernest Wallon will live longest in his memory but he also knows the significance of the inter-provincials.

"The Toulouse result away from home was just something that I will treasure for ever. To win over there and to see the crowd like that - it was a Sunday game and we had to leave after but the supporters did all the celebrating for us," he says.

"I remember walking down and thanking all the supporters there. To see the enthusiasm, it showed where we had started and where we had come from and obviously that result was fantastic.

"Beating Harlequins as well, when we were on such a bad run. . . I was over the moon for Eric Elwood to get that win.

"But the inter-provincial games is when the spotlight is really on Connacht Rugby.

"In the past we may have struggled for headlines and results, so for Connacht to start putting together a few wins, especially at home, is brilliant. We do need to win more away games but there is a sense of achievement from beating the likes of Munster and Leinster, hopefully it is onwards and upwards in that regard."

For now it's all about returning to fitness after he suffered a leg fracture playing for the Connacht Eagles against Ulster Ravens earlier this month.

He wants to be back playing in April, in a Connacht team that is on the verge of their most competitive end-of-season run-in.

However, after that he's keeping his options open - he is getting married in Spain in the summer and will let the rest figure itself out.

"At the moment I think I will be taking a break from the game entirely but I never say never," he says.

"Rugby has given me a lot and I am not the type of person to say that I am going to be walking away from rugby for life. But for now I am calling it quits. All avenues are open in the future and I am open to all possibilities so I am not disregarding having a role in the game again.

"It is exciting stepping out into 'the real world' and if that means being involved in rugby then that would be fantastic.

"But if not I will always have a strong connection with Connacht anyway, that is for sure."

Irish Independent

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