Incredible journey from the depths of despair to the top of the pile
Former team manager John Fallon reveals that winning over their own community was crucial factor in Connacht's rise from near extinction to Pro12 glory
Published 03/06/2016 | 02:30
The former All-Star footballer surveyed the line of giddy schoolchildren queueing along the side of the pitch, copybooks, biros and pencils in hand, waiting to get the autographs of players they had never heard of.
Seamus McHugh, principal of the nearby Claran National School in Headford in north Co Galway, had captained Galway in the ill-fated 1983 All-Ireland final against Dublin and won two All-Stars in a lengthy career with the county, also playing for Ireland in the International Rules series against Australia.
Connacht Rugby, who a few months earlier in 2003 had come within the stroke of a pen of being disbanded, had decamped to Headford to train for the day and the kids, in high spirits with summer holidays looming, had spilled out from their classrooms in their dozens to the pitch used by Corrib RFC which had been leased from the Presentation Sisters.
Andrew Farley, a tanned and blond Australian 6ft 5ins second-row who had just arrived in Galway, picked up a ball on the halfway line and sent it looping with one hand in a massive arc in the air before it dropped with a bang on the roof of the Connacht kit van 30 or 40 metres away.
The kids whooped and hollered! Michael Bradley, the newly-installed coach, picked up a hurley and sent a tennis ball flying past ears and straight in through the open window of the van. More hurrahing and squealing from the kids. The circus had come to town!
The kids in the line for autographs greeted the players like heroes, not having a clue who they were or who they were playing for, but they were clearly impressed by the show.
"I reckon ye'll be awful dangerous if you ever win anything," said McHugh. "I'm just wondering why we never came here with the Galway footballers, or why don't we even do it now? I can see where ye are trying to go and good luck to ye. But it might be a long road."
The trip to Headford, which included a visit to The Anglers Rest - which had provided the dressing-rooms, food and everything else for Corrib RFC - was part of several made in that summer of 2004 in a bid to win the hearts and souls of clubs and communities in Connacht.
A few months earlier 2,000 people - several hundred more than a regular home attendance - had marched on the IRFU offices in a bid to stop the cash-strapped organisation from wiping them out.
Behind the scenes it was often a bitter battle and many friendships fell by the wayside. Friendships inside the province were also tested and, in some cases, fractured.
When the dust settled, head coach Steph Nel and a host of players had departed. The province had been saved, but the team wasn't.
Bradley, a former Ireland captain, was summoned from Scotland, where he was involved with the Irish U-21s, and told to decamp from Cork to Galway and take on perhaps the hardest job in Irish rugby.
He set about the task with gusto; one by one players were added to the squad.
I was in my second year as team manager and in the aftermath of the threat of extinction being lifted, chief executive Gerry Kelly sat down one day and we struggled to get far into double figures when looking at a squad for the following season.
The IRFU, in fairness, parked the unseemly row and threw their shoulder to the wheel, maybe not with the fervour which some in Connacht were looking for, but it was better than pulling the wheels off the cart.
Bradley knew that we needed to spread the gospel if we were to grow the numbers, so visits to Monivea, Tuam, Ballina, Sligo, Castlebar and elsewhere were organised for the squad to train, while some matches were switched to Dubarry Park in Athlone.
Bradley himself spent a lot of winter evenings in the car heading out to clubs; in time players followed him and bit by bit the building blocks were put in place.
Progress was actually swift in the 2003-04 season, a great run in the Challenge Cup leading to a first ever semi-final berth against Harlequins, a two-legged affair.
A 31-22 loss in The Stoop led to hopes that the tie was winnable.
Connacht were back marching again. College Road was closed to traffic for the second leg, the fans gathered at the team hotel at the Radisson and marched up the hill to a packed Sportsground. Giddiness was in the air, the sense of expectation overwhelming.
We came within a few metres of winning the tie, making a mess of a lineout in the dying moments in the right corner when we were just four points adrift. We lost the tie 49-45 and another dozen years would pass before Connacht would get past a semi-final.
There were a lot of tears shed in the dressing-room that day; there were probably even more shed in the toilets and quiet corners of the building and stadium. It was utter devastation. To be so close and to come up so short. Weeks and weeks of preparation, on and off the field, had gone into this tie.
It affected everyone in the organisation, the groundsman John Holland as upset as the captain Andrew Farley. It was an awful day.
The tears were not confined to the home changing room. Across the corridor Gavin Duffy was in bits. He had grown up in Ballina, was Connacht to the backbone but had departed for London a year earlier when it looked like his home province was done for.
He knew what the loss meant to Connacht; celebrating reaching his first European final - which Quins won - would have to wait for another day.
Outside the Connacht clubhouse his father Tony, a stalwart of Ballina RFC, had tears of joy and despair, delighted to see his son perform so well in such exalted company as Will Greenwood and Jason Leonard, but also hurting badly for a side he loved.
Fast forward 12 years, you come out the media exit at the back of the West Stand in Murrayfield and there, in the midst of the hundreds of delirious Connacht supporters, are Tony and Gavin Duffy. Father and son, covered in green, celebrating together.
The two of them, fervent Mayo supporters as well, sharing a day which the county footballers have never managed to deliver for them or thousands of families in every corner of the county for the past six decades.
They weren't the only family celebrating in Murrayfield last Saturday. Maurice Buckley from Roscommon, with that ridiculous mix of joy and sadness which only sport can deliver at the same time, was thrilled that Connacht had finally broken through, but heart-broken that his son Denis, such a key member of the team all season, missed the biggest day through injury.
Fourteen years ago I approached Maurice, asking him to do his bit for Connacht. It was coming up to my first game as team manager and we were taking on Bristol in a pre-season friendly at the Sportsground.
Someone had gone through a checklist and noticed we needed a mascot. I had noticed a young lad from Roscommon throwing a rugby ball around the mobile home park and asked his dad would he do the honours.
There were about 150-200 people in the Sportsground that Wednesday afternoon when we played Bristol. The young lad from Roscommon led them out, got his replica jersey and £50 in an account which sponsors Bank of Ireland opened for him. He was thrilled and his dad was even more chuffed.
Just over nine years later the mascot was back in the Sportsground, but this time running out to play against Toulouse in the Heineken Cup, and last Saturday Denis Buckley was part of the greatest day ever for Connacht.
The mantra from all involved in Connacht when the IRFU threat was most active in that dark and horrible winter of 2002-03 was the absolute need to keep the team alive and maybe, just maybe, it might some day open out and blossom.
But never, never, in our wildest dreams could we see a day when Leinster would be floored at the home of Scottish rugby and a hurler from a townland outside Portumna would collect and carry home the trophy awarded to the best team in Ireland, Wales, Scotland and Italy.
The kids from Claran National school in Headford have grown up since the day Connacht visited them in 2003.
They probably didn't notice but among the players whose autograph they sought that day was a quiet, fresh-faced lad from Portumna called John Muldoon.