The power of four
Connacht’s future secured as rival provinces pledge to send players west
WE'VE come a long way since the crusade of 2003. In January of that year, almost 2,000 supporters marched on the IRFU's offices in Lansdowne Road and handed in a petition expressing their outrage at proposals to pull the plug on Connacht rugby.
It worked -- to the extent that Connacht limped on as the unloved son of the Irish professional game, high on effort and against-the-odds commitment, low on quality, achievement and investment.
In an era when Irish rugby suddenly became successful and 'sexy', new, happy-clappy supporters emerged alongside established ones and began flocking to the social engagements that were Munster and Leinster matches. There, they would proudly show off the latest attire from the merchandise shop, declare their new-found, undying devotion to the cause and ogle the big-name stars with glassy eyes.
It was a bit different out west. Bottom-of-the-table struggles and a lack of marquee names translated into meagre attendances made up of dyed-in-the-wool types prepared to buy into the endurance test that is supporting Connacht rugby. Victories were riotously received, defeats stoically accepted and, when news emerged last season of one-year contracts and an extensive review into the sustainability of the province, it seemed the vultures were circling once again.
After years of toil as Connacht coach, when he was instrumental in keeping things afloat in difficult circumstances, Michael Bradley moved on and handed over to his assistant, and bona fide Connacht legend, Eric Elwood.
The Mervue man's passion for the cause was arresting. In these pages at the start of the season, the former Connacht playmaker issued a plaintive cry to the IRFU: "We need to work together for the betterment of Irish rugby. We want to work with you. Help us ... guide us, give us a purpose. We've got to be thinking about where the next crop are coming from and are they getting the exposure. We want to be one of four, we want to be part of it."
It was a timely, emotive reminder of the importance of Connacht to the national cause and, gradually, word began to leak out of a positive outcome to this review, culminating in yesterday's IRFU announcement, when Elwood's entreaties were comprehensively answered.
Inevitably, finance is a key component, with increased funding a major boost and the practical side of the new structure involves the creation of the Professional Games Board (PGB). This board is made of individuals who have proven themselves in the financial, marketing and legal worlds, with a direct link to the professional playing side of the operation through the presence of ex-Connacht and Ireland scrum-half Conor McGuinness, whose partnership with Elwood is well established from their playing days.
Chaired by Connacht businessman Jimmy Staunton, the PGB is independent of the Connacht Branch and IRFU but draws heavily on local expertise and "is accountable to the IRFU Management Committee".
While the PGB's brief is to "oversee all aspects of the professional game", the primary function is to look after the financial well-being of Connacht rugby and this will centre on fundraising, commercial and marketing aspects.
Getting more punters through the gates of the Sportsground will be a priority. This encompasses a focus on facilities. The Sportsground's capacity is an uncomfortable 4,500 and the aim should be to increase that to 7,000-7,500.
Plans for a stand on the clubhouse side of the ground have been drawn up and are high on the PGB's to-do list, while the toilet facilities should also be examined under the expectation of bigger crowds.
As ever with Connacht, it is a chicken-and-egg scenario, in that results will determine how they will do in terms of increased attendances, but the establishment of the PGB is a step towards ensuring that no off-field stone will be left unturned.
And so to the most encouraging and progressive aspect to yesterday's announcement -- a nationally driven imperative to direct fringe, Irish-qualified players from the 'big three' provinces of Munster, Leinster and Ulster across to Connacht.
The goal is for Ireland's next wave of potential internationals to secure the most valuable commodity for any player -- game time.
Players have always had the option to make the move and those that have -- Sean Cronin, Ian Keatley, Fionn Carr, Jamie Hagan, Keith Matthews and, before them, Bernard Jackman, Jerry Flannery, Eoin Reddan, Tony Buckley -- benefited directly as a result.
However, up until now, other factors have come into play, such as provincial reluctance (ex-Leinster coach Michael Cheika was not a fan) and players being unwilling to move away from the glamour of being part of a top European team like Munster or Leinster.
For young men coming through the schools system and living among friends and family in Cork or Dublin, earning a decent wage, training with some of the biggest names in the game and receiving the kudos that comes with wearing your tracksuit around town proved a more attractive package than relocating to the relative backwaters of Connacht -- even with the prospect of consistent game time furthering their careers.
That is the reason Cronin and Co should be applauded for their drive and ambition. And this new structure increases the opportunities of others following their lead.
Declan Kidney's involvement in the announcement points towards the Ireland coach and his management team, who understandably want to see as many Irish players getting game time as possible, exerting a profound influence.
Thus, if a player is approached about a possible switch, he must now factor in the reality that he is being monitored by the Ireland management team, which should surely provide sufficient incentive to make the move.
What is clear is that there will be a large element of negotiation involved between the relevant parties. There has been a "commitment from Leinster, Munster and Ulster to allow more movement of selected players to Connacht", but they will not wish to overly weaken their own resources.
As a result, we are likely to see the movement of third and fourth-tier players -- just as Cronin was at Munster and Keatley and Hagan were at Leinster before their moves.
So, this looks less likely to affect the likes of Munster's Scott Deasy and Leinster Fergus McFadden, who have been featuring regularly in Magners League and Heineken Cup squads, but could involve players such as Ian Nagle, Simon Zebo and Brendan Macken, who feature primarily for their provincial 'A' sides.
Contracts are likely to be on a one or two-year basis for, as Elwood reasoned yesterday, the loan system has never operated in Irish professional rugby and the Connacht coach will be heavily invested in the negotiation process as he seeks to strike the balance.
That involves mixing up-and-coming Irish talent with a suitably hard-edged layer of experience. The intention is to get as many Irish players playing as regularly as possible but, if the team is overloaded with youth, Connacht will suffer.
There should be funds to attract a higher quality of import, while the likes of Bernie Upton, Ray Ofisa and Niva Ta'auso could still have a significant role to play.
Another issue is an influx from other provinces stymieing the development of talent within Connacht, whose underage sides have been performing very well.
All factors to be weighed up as Connacht rugby plots its path forward for the next three years. Planning, negotiation, balance, results -- those are the key words but at least now there is a proper path to follow.
The IRFU, justifiably, got a kicking for their role in the Lansdowne Road ticketing fiasco but deserve credit for putting together a plan that looks to be pragmatic, progressive and focused.
"Continuing to develop our own young players, bringing in others from the other provinces and having the budget to go out internationally and recruit, is a huge boost for us," said Elwood yesterday.
"Often, you felt it was three-plus-one as far as we were considered. Now we are one of four."
A good day for Connacht, a good day for Irish rugby.