For so long on the periphery of European club rugby Galway is set to become the most anticipated away date for travelling rugby fans from ASM Clermont Auvergne to Zebre and everywhere in between.
Galway has it all. Not only is it one of the friendliest cities in the world, but it a city of the arts. The bohemian atmosphere, the world class theatre, music and arts make for a vibrant, yet very relaxed city to visit, but especially for rugby.
As the city gears up to be European Capital of Culture in 2020, Galway can add yet another string to its bow, that of one of the hottest destinations for travelling rugby fans.
Galway is a vibrant city and when the European Rugby Champions Cup rolls into town and the travelling support that comes with it, it’s like nowhere else on Earth.
Pat Lam has breathed new life into Connacht rugby. He's instilled a new sense of identity and an exciting heads-up brand of rugby. Connacht now expect to beat all opposition and to do so on their own terms. It's a great time to be a Connacht supporter and on the streets of the province's biggest city you can feel it.
Heineken Rugby Club's Connacht ambassador Padraig Kelly hosted Claire Moore, his Ulster counterpart, and Ulster and Ireland legend Stephen Ferris for an unforgettable match day experience in Galway.
Galway was heaving with local support and with the travelling Toulouse fans, who always get into the occasion and come decked out in the colours of their beloved Stade Toulousain. Galway is possibly the friendliest city in the world, absolutely everyone is sound, but when there's a big rugby match on, the welcome is really rolled out. Expect Galway to become one of the most anticipated away dates for any European rugby fan for years to come. Connacht Rugby has come a long way.
The story is all the more compelling because the fans are very much a part of the narrative. Padraig never misses an opportunity for a quick hello with his fellow Connacht fans as they take to the streets and pubs on match day. As a Heineken Rugby Club ambassador, Padraig says sometimes he feels like a TD walking around Galway on match day. He'd need more than two arms to shake all the proffered hands. With Stephen along with him there's a constant buzz around them.
Join Heineken Rugby Club, where rugby meets the world.
Members of the Heineken Rugby Club can avail of exclusive benefits like the chance to win tickets to exclusive VIP rugby events.
· Money off vouchers for Just Eat and Hailo among others
· Entry to competitions to win match tickets
· Access to exclusive Heineken Rugby Club events
· Opportunities to win signed rugby merchandise, signed by rugby legends
· The chance to be at the coin toss before European Rugby Champions Cup matches along with pre match stadium tour
The Radisson Blu was the perfect location for Padraig, Claire and Stephen to base themselves. Pretty much everywhere is walkable from Radisson Blu and the hotel was full of Irish and French rugby supporters. Located in the centre of town it provides access by foot for travelling supporters to the centre of Galway. It’s right beside the train station, just a short walk from the Sportsground too. Situated on the estuary where the River Corrib enters Galway Bay, it is afforded stunning views of the Atlantic and Galway Bay.
The hotel gets very busy around sporting events and you’d be advised to book well in advance of a trip to see a rugby game in Galway. It only takes about 10 minutes to reach the Sportsground on foot from here, but there is so much to experience en route.
Not only will Radisson Blu allow you easy access to the sites of Galway city, but it’s the perfect place from which to explore Connemara should you have an extra couple of days before or after the match. The famed West of Ireland is one of the most extraordinary places on earth and Galway city is the gateway to some of the most unforgettable scenery you can ever hope to find.
Western Distributors Road, Knocknacarra
Located in Knocknacarra just a few minutes outside Galway, Pure Skill was a great place to visit as a warm up for the match. They cater for any occasion, whether it be a group of rugby supporters, stag-dos or a corporate event. Pure Skill allows a group to test their skill levels across a range of different sports, from football, to tennis, golf, baseball, basketball and of course, rugby.
Each skill section presents a different challenge, but Padraig and Claire got stuck right into the competitiveness by trying their hands, and feet, at rugby. They were given the opportunity to drop-kick or kick from the tee to compete against each other and to try gain a place on the overall leader board.
With Padraig unerring from the boot for his first few conversions, Claire's competitive streak was beginning to show. Luckily she had her fellow Ulsterman to help her out. And Stephen Ferris, as so often in his rugby career, didn't disappoint, booming huge kicks between the uprights with an accuracy belying his backrow status. Who knew he was so accurate from the tee?
The Fan Zone
For the first time ever, the city of Galway provided a Fan Zone for Connacht and Toulouse fans. Blocking off Forster Street, there was an area for rugby supporters to get together and soak up the atmosphere. Anticipation for the big game was in the air as all the pubs on the street heaved with revellers. A place where opposing fans can meet and mingle with each other epitomises all that is good about the game and, hopefully, this will be the first of many Fan Zone experiences.
In the centre of Galway city is The Sportsground stadium, the very heart of Connacht rugby. Just a few minutes walk up the hill from Eyre Square, it’s easy to find as an army of supporters begins the short stroll up before kick-off.
The Sportsground is an utterly unique stadium, with a greyhound track around the pitch (Connacht share the facility with the Irish Greyhound Board, who run regular race meetings there). It means the stands are quite far from the action. As there’s very little seating in the stadium, if you wish to find a spot on the terrace to view the game you’d best get there early. The stadium has undergone a series of renovations in recent years, meaning it’s a vastly different place to the time when only a few hundred supporters would huddle in the stand against the driving sideways rain on a winter's evening.
The Main Stand provides corporate hospitality on match day, but the Clan Stand is where the atmosphere is, as the Connacht Clan cram into it to belt out The Fields of Athenry during a game. Ask any Connacht supporter about The Sportsground, and while it has provided barely adequate facilities for years, they are passionately in love with the place. Rarely is a stadium so symbolically linked to its supporters. The Sportsground is the home of Connacht Rugby and it is growing with this club.
The Clan Bar
The Clan Bar is where you get a pint before, during or after the game. Located just behind the Clan Stand it is everything a rugby club house should be. There you’ll get to find some of the most passionate rugby supporters in the corridor between the bar and the stadium. It’s a place where all kinds of rugby fans mix.
Here it was wall-to-wall Connacht green with the Toulouse fans in among them. The Toulouse brass band were getting the crowd going, as were the Connacht drummers. You could sense the anticipation in the crowd from both sets of supporters, it was set up nicely for a wonderful game of rugby.
The Heineken Rugby Clubhouse
The Heineken Rugby Clubhouse can be accessed by Connacht Rugby season ticket holders and lucky Heineken Rugby Club members. It is the ideal spot to enjoy the atmosphere of match day, with live music before and after the game. It also hosts a preview before the game and a post-match game review, both featuring players and team management.
After the euphoria of their historic victory over Toulouse, a couple of the Connacht stars were only too happy to oblige the lucky fans gathered in the Heineken Rugby Clubhouse with post-game speeches and analyses.
Was this the most intense victory for Connacht? Beating the most successful team in European club rugby? Having already beaten Toulouse in a one-off game in France three years ago, the Connacht team were determined to prove that they deserve to be in this competition and to secure points early in the group stage.
Pat Lam has been an inspirational figure for Connacht Rugby and whatever he said to his players at half time worked. With a methodical calmness, his players simply relied on their tried and tested system, running the ball, offloading and not once kicking for territory. They got their reward too, with two stunning tries. Connacht fans were in seventh heaven, not only were Connacht wresting back control of the game, but they were doing so on their own terms.
Even Stephen and Claire, who still had the recent Connacht defeat of Ulster fresh in their minds, were joining in with the roaring fans. A breathless finish saw Connacht hold their nerve in their own 22 under Toulouse pressure. They proved that they can do multiphase possession rugby as well as the fireworks, as they steadily made headway in the right direction before Connacht put boot to ball for the referee’s final whistle.
As the crowd filed out of the stadium a full moon sailed over the score board bearing that historic final score - CONNACHT 23 TOULOUSE 21.
The atmosphere is electric and with the cobbled streets of Galway just a few minutes walk away, you can be sure the city will be bustling with fans from both camps. The European Rugby Champions Cup is all the better for a having a team like Connacht in it, and it's all the better for having a city like Galway in it too.