The march on Lansdowne Road: The amazing story of how the passion of a province saved Connacht from extinction
How did we get here? This week has truly hammered home just how much Connacht rugby has grown – their first Guinness Pro12 semi-final against Glasgow this afternoon comes days after the unveiling of a bullish five year development plan that shows that their decision makers aren’t content with just one great season.
Consistent Champions Cup qualification, an increased presence in the Irish team and a new 10,000 seater stadium are all targeted in their aggressive blueprint. Just a few short years ago, the westerners were perennially languishing in the Pro12 cellar.
Now? From grassroots to the boardroom they are the envy of almost every other professional team and while a win today - and another in the league final next week – would deservedly cap off a spectacular season, what Connacht have achieved is already an unqualified success.
New Zealander Pat Lam has surrounded himself with top quality coaches who preach about the importance of skills while shrewd hometown operators like Willie Ruane (CEO), Eric Elwood (domestic rugby manager) and Nigel Carolan (Academy manager) have done huge amounts of work to ensure their head coach has a crop of prodigious young talent to work with.
This evening’s game in the Sportsgrounds should be a celebration of just how far Connacht have come and there will be plenty in attendance who will know firsthand exactly what it took to reach this level.
This season saw Connacht qualify for their first ever Pro12 semi-final Credit: Sportsfile.
The astounding part of the Connacht story isn’t just that the standard of the team has skyrocketed – huge one-off wins against Harlequins and Toulouse have now been converted to a season of sustained excellence – but rather, that the province has been able to hit such lofty heights after staring death right in the face.
Rewind the clock back thirteen years to 2003. That year will become important in a few paragraphs but first, let’s rewind the clock back even further, to about three or four years before that.
The professional game is slowly – very, slowly – taking shape in Ireland. The initial glut of players who departed for the English Premiership is beginning to return home to the provinces.
That leaves the IRFU in a bit of a tricky situation. Their war chest only contains so much money, and as top quality internationals flood back into the Irish provincial system, naturally, it strains the finances to have to pay them all.
Ulster have won the Heineken Cup in 1999. Munster will follow them to the final the following year but the provinces aren’t yet at the popularity level that would eventually see a derby game sell out Croke Park.
So how exactly can the IRFU sustain four provinces in tough financial times?
Former IRFU President Billy Glynn, who was a committee member at the time, explains to Independent.ie how the union planned a drastic measure that would have changed the landscape of Irish rugby irreparably.
“With a lot of players returning from England, suddenly the cost of running the four provinces was beginning to escalate,” Glynn says.
“In 1999, 2000, 2001 there were a lot of rumblings and the union actually made the decision in the early part of that period to discontinue the Connacht professional team.
“There were lots of negotiations and Connacht struggled on, on a year to year basis but in the season 2002/03 they finally decided that this was going to happen.”
This plan became known to the rugby public through the media while at the same time a committee known as ‘Friends of Connacht’ was set up out west.
Their mission? To save Connacht rugby.
A crowd of 600 met in the Radisson Hotel in Galway in January 2003 in what was a passionate and emotional gathering as people who gave their life to the province spoke about just how important it was that the sport was sustained professionally in Connacht.
A sign pictured at a meeting of "Friends of Connacht" where the future of Connacht Rugby was discussed, Radisson Hotel, Co. Galway. Picture credit: Damien Eagers / SPORTSFILE
Eamonn Feely was the team treasurer at the time, in charge of all the finances. He remembers sitting at the meeting in Galway as the seeds were sown of what would eventually become, if not a revolt, certainly an agreement to not go down quietly.
“It was a very emotional meeting,” Feely says.
“I remember particular people like Billy Glynn and various others, there were a lot of passionate people there who had more or less given their lives to Connacht rugby up to that point, and they felt that this would be an injustice if it actually happened and that it wasn’t going to solve the IRFU's financial issue.
“To put it in military terms, we saw it as a clear and present danger and that we would have to fight very hard to make sure we kept our status as a full branch of the union.”
The alternative to fighting the IRFU’s decision, as Glynn tells it, was bleak. Connacht wouldn’t have become a feeder team to the other three provinces, or even a development or an amateur side.
There would have been nothing there, just a rugby wasteland with nothing for young players to aspire too.
“Team gone, closed down, just three provinces,” Glynn says when asked what rugby in the province would have looked like with no professional team.
“There was no proposal in that regard [for Connacht to be kept running as a development/amateur side]. It was a shutdown. A 100% shutdown.”
From the IRFU’s point of view, cutting Connacht from the professional payroll was probably the most prudent financial action that they could have taken at the time. Speaking in the media during that season, IRFU CEO Philip Browne said the union was on course to lose €4m that year, and €7m the following season.
The IRFU was losing money in 2002/03 and disbanding Conancht would have been a big cost-saver.
The golden generation hadn’t quite blossomed into the revenue-generating behemoths that they would eventually become and in 2002/03, Glynn admits that despite the occasional big performance, Connacht weren’t offering a whole lot to the IRFU.
However, while Feely concedes that disbanding Connacht may have been ‘logical’ from a financial point of view, he felt it was the union’s role to promote the sport in all four corners of the country, something that seems self-evident today given how prominent each of the provinces are in their own right.
It doesn’t seem like that was the attitude of some within the IRFU at the time though, as this illuminating conversation Glynn had with a high ranking official shows.
“At one of the debates at the time, one of the prominent people at the top table turned to me and said ‘Billy, do you honestly think that a Connacht player will ever play for Ireland again?’,” he says.
“That was said to me at the top table. I said, ‘if people continue thinking like you do, the answer is no’.”
That sort of thinking extended to the other provinces too, according to Glynn. When the IRFU proposed ending Connacht as a professional entity, his colleagues from Ulster, Leinster and Munster didn’t exactly leap to the team’s defence.
“None of the other reps from the other provinces supported Connacht,” Glynn said.
“They were all looking at their own little patch – understandably – and they wanted more money. If Connacht was eliminated there was more money in the kitty for them. They saw this as a way for getting more money so none of them stood up and objected in meetings.”
While money was one of the main reasons that the proposal was initially considered, something else came to Connacht’s rescue, and it wasn’t some mega-rich Roman Abramovich-esque oligarch.
The passion of the province was what saved the team from extinction.
Out of that meeting in a Galwegian hotel came one of the most exceptional acts of solidarity and support ever witnessed in Irish sport.
The Friends of Connacht, the players of Connacht, the coaches of Connacht, the fans of Connacht, the politicians of Connacht and the men, women and children of Connacht all came to Dublin and marched to Lansdowne Road to show the IRFU that there IS a passion for the game out west, and that to scrap Connacht as a professional side would be to alienate some of Irish rugby’s most dedicated followers.
Then Connacht player Jerry Flannery on the march to Lansdowne Road.
“It was out of that meeting in Galway that the decision to march on Lansdowne Road was taken,” Feely says.
“I remember going to Dublin on the train and there was a fantastic atmosphere to have that amount of people from right around the province. It was a very unique occasion. You would usually only see that amount of rugby people at Lansdowne Road going to a match.
Supporters of Connacht rugby en route to the IRFU offices.
“It had that kind of atmosphere. There was nothing malicious about it. It would have been a difficult time for Phillip Browne but he met us and took our petition. It wasn’t organised by the branch but it was supported by the branch. There was nothing formal at that time, it was just supported by people who were in the Sportsgrounds for every match.”
When you look back, the battle to save Connacht was probably won when a young supporter was led up the steps of the IRFU offices in January ’03 to hand Browne a petition that begged him to save their team.
A young Connacht fan, Michael Fallon, deliver documents to the IRFU Headquarters after the march to Lansdowne Road. Credit; Sportsfile.
For the IRFU to continue with their plan to kill the team thereafter would have been PR suicide. The union climbed down and agreed to continue to fund Connacht, with a review of the province’s progress after two years (although Glynn says he doesn’t remember any review ever taking place).
As Sky commentator Martin Tyler said after Liverpool scored three goals in six minutes in the 2005 Champions League final against AC Milan – ‘Mission impossible is complete’.
Connacht rugby had been saved.
That march by the people of Connacht was the first brick in the foundation. Slowly over the subsequent seasons, more were added – Michael Bradley, Eric Elwood, John Muldoon, there are countless people who helped build on what was achieved that day at Lansdowne Road.
13 years on, and it is safe to say that the house that Connacht built is now one of the most admired on the Irish rugby road.