Connacht lay out plan to build on historic success
Blueprint for future includes 10,000-capacity stadium as fanbase skyrockets
Joe Schmidt and David Nucifora took their seats at the back of the IRFU president's suite at the Aviva Stadium yesterday to listen to Connacht outline their vision for the future.
It was telling that the two most influential men in Irish rugby were there to lend their silent support for the one-time black sheep, now firmly established as the golden child of Irish rugby.
Now, Connacht are looking to cement their place in the fold by ensuring this season is not a once off.
Up on the top table, chief executive Willie Ruane detailed their new four-year plan, outlining the province's vision and strategy to grow their team on the pitch and brand off it.
The former full-back was flanked by club and community manager Eric Elwood, who did so much as head coach to kick-start the province's growth, Pat Lam, who built on his good work and revolutionised Connacht's playing style, and Academy supremo Nigel Carolan, who has helped produce a steady flow of youngsters who have contributed to the on-field success this season.
On Saturday, the province host their first Guinness Pro12 semi-final and the demand for tickets is such that they could have probably sold the Sportsground out twice.
Hence, the key area for growth in the next few years is around the stadium.
Ruane knows that if Connacht are to continue to grow then they'll need a home that is able to accommodate their growing fan-base, one that is of a suitable standard for their existing fans and crucially one that can help grow the province's revenues through ticket sales and commercial income.
Inevitably, the line about having "a fit for purpose" stadium grabbed most of the attention, with the Mayo native indicating that the organisation's preference is to remain at a redeveloped Sportsground.
Negotiations are underway with the Irish Greyhound Board, from whom Connacht lease their ground, but Ruane is not ruling out the province leaving their home in order to achieve their goal of a 10,000-plus capacity stadium with scope for growth.
Connacht are willing to partner with other sporting bodies in order to get the project over the line.
"There's a vast array of different options in Galway. Some of them are not feasible, some of them are more feasible than others and we've looked at every one of them, just to explore and have a quick conversation to say 'I wonder what that would look like'," said Ruane. "There aren't too many stones that we haven't turned over to try and establish what might be feasible or not.
"If you're going to build a large facility in the west of Ireland, it would make sense that you're getting the best use of it, so logically it's something that I think would be in everyone's interest."
Partnering with the 2023 World Cup bid looks unlikely, however, with Ruane conscious of not aiming too big and being left with a stadium they can't fill.
"The issue is that the criteria to qualify as a stadium for the World Cup is very significantly in excess of what we require," he said. "So you could hitch on the back of one of those and end up in a stadium that's way too big and it actually kills what you're trying to achieve in the first place.
"There are other spin-off benefits in terms of training facilities and the other infrastructure around that tournament that could have a legacy effect for Connacht Rugby into the future."
Connacht did discuss moving Saturday's clash with Glasgow Warriors to Thomond Park, but thought better of the idea.
However, they are investigating the idea of moving a big European game elsewhere next year in order to maximise the crowd they could attract. Ruane is open to staging a game in Mayo, although the GAA rules work against such a move as they currently stand.
Along with the stadium, Connacht's vision lays out the playing goals for the next four years and they are aiming to remain in the Champions Cup beyond next season when they take their place on merit for the first time. They also have quarter-finals and increased representation in Ireland squads on their mind.
Key to that will be player retention and, in particular, holding on to their big names whose profile is on the rise on the back of the Westerners' impressive campaign. With Robbie Henshaw, Aly Muldowney and Rodney Ah You exiting at the end of this season, attention has already turned to securing Bundee Aki beyond next season.
"That's a great complaint isn't it? I mean if he wasn't performing and no one wanted him it's a bigger problem," Ruane said of the New Zealand-born Samoan who qualifies to play for Ireland through residency next year.
"The fact that he's performing so well and he's performing for Connacht is a great thing for us. The challenge is to hold on to, not just him, but the other players as well.
"I genuinely believe that the experience and the environment that they are operating, they believe in what we are trying to do. That doesn't take away from the fact that there are clubs out there with very deep pockets, but that's professional sport.
"It's probably a really personal decision for Bundee as well. That's something that he would need to consider, but do I think the attraction of playing in a packed out Aviva Stadium here, that's something that I have no doubt anyone operating at the highest level would find very, very attractive.
"We are genuinely constantly in dialogue with David Nucifora, I'm actually meeting him after this event today, again, to talk about the next stage of where we're going.
"You can take it as a given that whenever it makes sense to start a conversation early, we start the conversations early."
Connacht's key goals
* Champions Cup qualification from 2016 on
*To reach the knock out stages of the Champions Cup on at least one occasion before 2020
* Critical assessment of contracting Return on Investment
* To achieve an average of four players in Ireland senior match-day squads by 2020
* To achieve an average of 30pc indigenous player representation with the squad
* Increase commercial capacity
* Grow commercial revenues, maximise stakeholder support and develop an effective fundraising strategy
* Build a fit for purpose stadium, develop centres of excellence and improved club facilities across the province
* To have 60pc of academy inductees transitioning to professional rugby
* To have four academy-originated players in Ireland match-day squad by 2020