Sport Rugby

Saturday 24 February 2018

Nothing wild about West's united front

TRIPS to Galway to watch Connacht are always eventful. On Wednesday, it meant a train as far as Athlone, which was then split in two - information which had not been imparted over the PA system - and, but for the intervention of a friendly fellow passenger, the journey to cover Connacht versus Leinster would have ended up with a maiden visit to Westport.

Thankfully, the right half of the train was located just in time and we eventually made it over to the Galway Sportsground-slash- racetrack, a venue which gets dogs' abuse from a wide variety of sources but one which suits and serves Connacht rugby well.

The Sportsground has a quaint charm, particularly when the skies are clear. Ordinarily, visits are accompanied by the type of wind and rain that would freeze the sushi out of a samurai, but on Wednesday it was bathed in sunshine which drew a larger than expected crowd of three-and-a-half thousand.

With a normal capacity of 5,000, the plan is to increase this to 8,000 when Jonny Wilkinson and his Toulon chums arrive for the Challenge Cup semi-final this day week. There is also talk of permanently growing the capacity which makes sense when you consider that Munster (26,000), Leinster (18,000) and Ulster (12,000) have been able to cater for many more supporters over the past number of years.

Again, we are back to the chicken-and-egg scenario which dominates Connacht rugby - if the team achieves consistent success, the punters will come out to watch them, which helps generate the revenue to sustain that success. Thus the over-riding imperative to make the Heineken Cup for the first time.

Ground improvements might also include a designated press box on the clubhouse-side of the ground, as the current situation is more than a little challenging.

The press are housed behind a large glass window in the corporate entertainment section of the main stand, normally patronised by greyhound punters out for a bite, bevy and bet.

A row of seats is reserved for the lap-top brigade just in front of the main bar and it is quite usual to be frantically tapping away while beered-up supporters slop on top of you. Not ideal, but a bit of enthusiatically spilt drink never hurt anyone and there is a gatekeeper present to keep the madding throng at bay.

However, on Wednesday, Cerberus was absent and the lunatics broke into the asylum. Two Leinster supporters who could safely be described as 'tired and emotional' sat down alongside, emitting the type of malodorous waft (from a selection of orifices) that would water the eyes of a gargoyle.

They became increasingly vociferous as it became clear that their journey west was going to be a sorrow-drowning exercise.

"I've a headline for ye lads... WE WERE SH**E!" bawled one, with the breath to emphasise how strongly he felt.

Having made the effort on a Wednesday night to support their team, the supporters had earned the right to be heard and frustration was understandable given Leinster's strong selection.

However, some of the doom and gloom that has met Leinster's reverse and then been linked to the pessimism surrounding the forthcoming assignment in Toulouse is disproportionate in relation to what took place on Wednesday.

The Leinster side that contests their Heineken Cup semi-final tomorrow week will, in terms of intensity and focus, bear little relevance to the one which stuttered at the Sportsground.


They could not hope to be at the same level of mental ferocity as their hosts, who needed a win to keep Ulster in their sights; had demons to exorcise after their defeat to an understrength Munster a few days previously and had a score to settle after this fixture was forced upon them, stretching their much-abused and meagre resources.

The fact Leinster knew they were in the play-offs already and would have been subconsciously anxious to avoid injury with Toulouse on their minds undoubtedly took the edge off -- and even then they did not play too badly, dominating possession and territory for long periods with decent displays from Eoin Reddan and Jamie Heaslip, in particular.

Connacht just needed it more.

Ireland coach Declan Kidney, his forwards coach Gert Smal and defence coach Les Kiss were present to witness a momentous home win and the performances of Gavin Duffy, Sean Cronin and inspirational captain John Muldoon must have registered ahead of the summer tour.

All in all, another good trip to Galway. Michael Bradley has worked hard to gain respect for Connacht rugby over the past seven years and there are encouraging signs he is leaving this underdog on the right track.

Irish Independent

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