From the valley of despair to the mountain top
Fourteen years after being threatened with extinction, Connacht carry the flag to the French Alps today
Published 09/04/2016 | 02:30
In the dressing-room, in the old Thomond Park, on a cold November morning, all the talk is about Connacht. And it's not because they are the team we are playing that weekend. If only it was simple.
This, however, is complicated. They're in trouble. A story has broken that the IRFU is preparing to cut them loose. "A financially unviable project," we read. "A project?" we ask. "I thought they were players and people, just like us."
Our sympathy is selective, though. The idea of them being wiped off the map does not sit well with us. But when we play them that weekend, we have to be ruthless because they are the team standing between us and a Celtic League semi-final. So we talk the same talk we normally do.
"Make sure to respect them," we say. "Match their workrate. Match their passion. If we do that, we'll win." And we do beat them. The bigger victory, however, happens off the pitch - in boardrooms and on the street, when a march to Lansdowne Road captures the public's imagination and forces the IRFU to back down.
"Get rid of Connacht?"
Not anymore. They are kept alive. And all of us in that Munster dressing-room are pleased, even though all of us in that Munster dressing room have had an awkward conversation about whether we could march in support of our playing colleagues from another province or whether we should remember that our employers are the people they are protesting against.
Worried about our own futures, we decide we can't go. And when they are granted a reprieve, we're delighted for them. Genuinely thrilled.
In some ways, though, that threat of extinction can be seen as the beginning of this journey they are on now because it forced the club into a rethink.
Way back then, they weren't getting results. In fact, they were the whipping boys. Whenever we played them, we knew we'd beat them, providing we weren't complacent, because deep down we knew we had more quality.
And deep down, the men in charge of the province realised that too, because from that moment on, they went about changing things. From Michael Bradley and then Eric Elwood came a change of emphasis. They started unearthing better players, improving their underage structure and upgrading their game-plan.
When the professional era dawned, their U-21s lost 10 out of 10 matches. Those figures were gradually turned around, players started coming through their system. The All-Ireland League was identified as a market waiting to be tapped. Craig Ronaldson was plucked from there, so too Matt Healy.
And it reminded me of something and someone - of when I was brought first to Shannon from Clanwilliam and then from Shannon into a professional scene with Munster.
They started to play with a chip on the shoulder, just as we did all those years ago, when we drew energy from the fact that someone, somewhere had written us off.
A day that sums all this up? For us, it was in 1999. The World Cup squad had been picked and only a few Munster players were on it. So when the Ireland team came down to Musgrave Park for a warm-up game, we sought retribution. We tore into them that night. Kicked the crap out of each other. The theme was - 'well if you (Warren Gatland) don't think we're good enough, then here is our answer'.
And I can see that spirit and attitude in Connacht this season because they have much more reason to have a chip on their shoulder now than we did back then.
After all, they were the province that were nearly cut adrift. Most of their players - at some stage - have had setbacks. Year after year, they've finished in the bottom half of the Pro12. When they got Heineken Cup rugby, it was on the back of Leinster's success. How often have they been told they weren't good enough?
Often enough to want to prove those cynics wrong. And this year, they have.
The great thing about having a chip on your shoulder as a rugby player is the incentive it gives you. Your levels of determination increase. You use the bitterness to drive you forward, to get off the floor and sprint across the field to make another tackle, to keep going - as men like Michael Swift and John Muldoon did - when the cameras weren't rolling into the Sportsground, when results weren't good.
Today, though, a chip on your shoulder will not be enough because today Connacht have to move onto a new level.
Having never won a trophy in their history - having never even made a final - opportunity knocks. Beat Grenoble - no easy task - and they will have a home semi-final. Who'd fancy that task?
Yet their biggest challenge isn't the Challenge Cup. Their biggest challenge is coming to the realisation that, from here on in, life is about to get harder.
Expectations have grown. They've carved out a reputation for themselves as a do-or-die team, a skilful side who are as comfortable throwing the ball around their own 22 as they are in the opposition half.
Already, they have won something this season: respect. Now, though, they want to lift a trophy, to beat Grenoble, to make it to that home semi-final, to finish off the job they set out to complete in the Pro12 and qualify for next season's Champions Cup.
More to the point, they'll be eyeing a home semi-final in that competition as well and if they're going to continue their dual assault on Pro12 and European trophies then they are going to have to have the ability to adjust their settings somewhat - because breakthrough teams go through different stages in their development. Initially, it is about getting one-off wins - like Connacht managed against Toulouse in 2013.
Then it's all about firsts: their first win in Thomond Park in the professional era, their first time qualifying off their own back for the Champions Cup.
And once you start chalking those achievements up on a board, your mentality changes. You stop referencing the fact the opposition has a bigger budget or better-known players on their team-sheet.
We went through that process in 1999 and 2000. Against Saracens, we saw Francois Pienaar and didn't know whether we should ask for his autograph or accept that we could be his equal.
Once we beat them, we thought differently. That's what the maturation process is all about and that is what Connacht have to undergo today.
Should they realise that cup rugby is different to league rugby, and that at this stage of the season, winning ugly is a whole lot better than losing gracefully, then they'll be in business - 14 years after the IRFU threatened to put them out of business.