Eddie O'Sullivan: Bradley's Connacht deliver fairytale victory over Toulon
There is an air of the Big Top coming to town as Connacht prepare to host the superstars of Toulon next Friday night at the Sportsground. In one sense, this will be Cup football at its most romantic. In another, it's a pretty stark portrait of the haves and have-nots of European rugby. Toulon, with their marquee faces of Jonny Wilkinson and Felipe Contepomi, operate on a budget roughly seven times the size of Connacht's.
In other words, logically, this Amlin Cup semi-final should really loom on the horizon as a hopeless mis-match. But when did logic ever drive the adventures of rugby in the West?
Obviously, I must declare an emotional attachment here. As a former Connacht coach, I am forever amazed at how the province almost habitually re-invents itself when crisis looms. Remember, it's just a few short years ago that the IRFU effectively decided to wind up Connacht, only to reconsider in the face of a public out-cry.
Consistently referred as the 'Cinderella Province' over the past 20 years, Connacht's story has parallels with that of the supposedly washed-up old prize-fighter, James J Braddock, in the movie 'Cinderella Man'. They keep defying the odds to take their shot at the big-time.
Historically, despite punching above their weight in producing home-grown internationals like Ray McLoughlin, Noel Mannion, Eric Elwood and Ciaran Fitzgerald, they've invariably been bottom of the inter-provincial hierarchy here.
Fitzgerald, of course, led an Irish team that included fellow Connacht men, John O'Driscoll and Robbie McGrath, to the 1982 Triple Crown. But the province itself has enjoyed only the most sporadic moments of glory.
In 1979, they beat pretty much the same Munster team that had downed the All Blacks at Thomond Park a year earlier. And they caught out Ulster in '83 and Munster again in '86.
This was their staple diet then, strictly isolated uprisings until the arrival of George Hook as coach in 1990. I was George's assistant and, maybe for the first time, Connacht's preparation was moved onto a professional footing. George and the then chairman of selectors, John Callinan, managed to bring in decent sponsorship and, critically, we tapped into the exiles like never before to put Irish internationals like Jim Staples, Simon Geoghegan and Dave Curtis into Connacht jerseys.
I'm too young to say for sure, but I expect this was probably the only time in Irish rugby history that our international team took the field with three Connacht backs on board.
We also tapped into players deemed surplus to requirements by other provinces, like Kevin Devlin, Bill Mulcahy, Tim Coughlan, Steve Jameson, Jamesie O'Riordan, Kenny Lawless, Mick Cosgrave, Noel McCarthy, Mick Fitzgibbon and Victor Costello. Apart from Tom Clancy (who had always been a Connacht stalwart), Costello and Fitzgibbon (who were capped), the rest were hardly household names.
But they were all bloody good players -- even if that was not recognised in their own provinces -- who gelled with home-grown Connacht players like Noel Mannion, Eric Elwood and David Henshaw to create a seriously competitive team.
We never did win the inter-pros but, in that '90 Championship, we drew with Ulster and went down to the narrowest of defeats against both Leinster and Munster. No glory admittedly. But light years removed from where the province had been.
Thereafter, Connacht generally held their own in the inter-pros up to the mid-1990s when a new crisis loomed.
The IRFU's decision to set up 'The Exiles' as a bona fide entity for the inter-pros meant we lost Staples, Geoghegan and Curtis. Worse, the other provinces had seen the error of their ways in seeing us snap up fringe talent and Leinster, particularly, responded by recalling Costello, Coughlan and Jameson to their ranks.
By now, I was Connacht coach. And it was time to start re-inventing again.
This was a difficult period. We were, essentially, working off crumbs, recruiting relatively unknown players like Diarmuid Reddan (Eoin's brother), Kieran Shanley, Declan Kavanagh, Graham Heaslip (Jamie's brother) and locals Mervyn Murphy (Ireland's current technical analyst), Aidan White, Mike Devine and Gordon Curley.
Yet, we made the best of what we had, gelling these guys with hardy annuals like Mannion, Elwood, Henshaw, Mulcahy, Devlin and Cosgrave to record notable victories over Leinster and Fiji.
After that, the game going professional probably presented Connacht with its greatest challenge. Warren Gatland was appointed full-time coach and, under his guidance, they shot out of the blocks quickly to enjoy a fantastic run in the European Challenge Cup, eventually losing in the quarter-final to Agen.
That success propelled Gatland into the Irish job, the Connacht baton passing to Glenn Ross and then Steph Nell.
It was around this time that the IRFU earmarked Connacht as a 'development province,' supposedly the place promising young players from Leinster, Munster and Ulster could go to, essentially, to learn their trade.
The concept had a lot of merit but it was never one bought into by the other provinces. And, as that particular penny dropped, the Union began to think of winding Connacht up.
The people who took to the streets back then should take much of the reflected glory now as Galway braces itself for what could be one of the great European nights.
That said, it should be remembered that what was reached between Connacht and the IRFU was more a compromise than a resolution. In other words, whilst the other three provinces had their budgets significantly increased, Connacht's was essentially frozen. It wasn't personal, just business.
And it has taken an incredibly pro-active and innovative PR drive, promoting 'Friday Night Rugby' as a package with 'Friday Night Greyhound Racing' at the Sportsground to keep the Connacht brand viable.
In Michael Bradley's tenure as coach, he's had to fight tooth and nail to keep a competitive team on the paddock and, frankly, no one should underestimate the job he has done. Connacht, after all, reached the semi-final of the European Challenge Cup in 2006 (losing to Harlequins) and now, again, step onto the same illustrious stage against Toulon next Friday.
Logically, this probably shouldn't be possible. Yet, it's not beyond the bounds that 'Brads' could sign off on a period of phenomenal service to Connacht by leading them into the Amlin Cup final now.
I hope it happens but, as Bradley passes the baton to another colossal servant of Connacht rugby, Eric Elwood, the storm clouds seem to be gathering west of the Shannon once again. Rumours are rife once more that the IRFU may be reviewing Connacht's position. And those rumours have scarcely been eased by the fact that Elwood is on a one-year contract.
Money is scarce and there are whispers that Connacht could be sacrificed to create a development programme for Sevens rugby (remember Ireland must plan to compete at Sevens in the 2016 Olympics). There may or may not be truth in this but, suffice to say, Connacht's future is far from certain.
What we can say is that Elwood's first professional appointment as a head coach probably couldn't have come in a more difficult climate. But that won't be a pre-occupation for either him or Bradley in the Sportsground next Friday mind.
This is Connacht's opportunity to create a little fairytale. The 'Cinderella Province' pitted against the great weight of a moneyed club currently leading the French Championship. It's a long shot, but certainly not a hopeless one.
Remember Braddock was a 10/1 shot to beat Max Baer and still walked off with the belt.