THE SCRUM DOCTOR – Try celebration!
The following is an article written in this weeks Wasps V Connacht match programme
May the 28th 2016 – a day that no Connacht rugby supporter will ever forget, and a day which should be cherished by rugby romantics all over the world, for as long as the game is played.
That was the day when ‘little’ Connacht, the province with the smallest rugby and overall population in Ireland, toppled the mighty Leinster, three times European champions (with the largest rugby and overall populations), to become PRO12 champions.
It was the stuff of fairy tales, and no victory can ever have tasted sweeter than the one enjoyed at Murrayfield by John Muldoon and his team. All the sweeter because, a few years earlier, Connacht Rugby as a professional side had come close to extinction.
Founded in 1885, Connacht had always been the poor relations of provincial rugby in Ireland, permanently living in the shadow of Leinster, Munster and Ulster. Connacht did manage to win the inter-provincial championship in 1957, 1958 and 1965, but the low-key tournament, which served mainly as international trial matches, was dominated by the Big Three. Only a handful of Connacht players ever represented their country., but that very short list did include such names as 1983 Lions captain Ciaran Fitzgerald and English-based Jim Staples and Simon Geoghegan.
Following the arrival of professionalism, it was the Big Three who took part in the first-ever Heineken Cup, in 1995/6. The following year, Connacht were granted a place in the first-ever Challenge Cup. Their coach was a certain Warren Gatland, a name familiar to many of this parish. He had begun his coaching career with Galwegians, before taking on the Connacht job, and then stepping up to the national team. When asked how he had coped with the often impenetrable West of Ireland brogue, he chuckled and replied: “I worked with Peter Clohessy for three-and-a-half years. I never understood a word he said!”
In 2003, with Gatland now guiding Wasps to greatness, the Irish Rugby Football Union, in its infinite wisdom, decided that it was no longer worth providing the funds to sustain the professional game in Connacht. What followed was a story to warm the hearts of all who love an underdog. With the Irish Rugby Union Players Association threatening to strike, two thousand protestors marched on the IRFU headquarters in Dublin. It worked. Connacht were reprieved, albeit with less than 50% of the central funding allocated to Leinster, Munster and Ulster. The following season, they reached the semi-finals of the Challenge Cup, losing to the eventual champions, Harlequins.
Connacht’s recent history meant that most rugby followers outside Ireland were now praying fpr them to finish above one of their Irish rivals in the 10-team Celtic League, if only to see what excuse the IRFU would find to deny them their place in the Heineken Cup. Unfortunately, that never happened, as Connacht finished bottom of the table in each of the league’s first six seasons. When the Italian teams joined the newly formed PRO12, in 2010/11, Connacht finished 9th, ahead of Treviso, Glasgow Warriors and Aironi. Progress – but still not enough to qualify for Europe’s top tournament.
In 2011/12, they finally claimed a Heineken Cup place by default, after Leinster won the cup the previous season. The competition rules allowed for an extra place to go to the country which provided the champions, and it would be hypocritical to deny that there was some irritation that a side finishing as low as 9th in the PRO12 should qualify ahead of an English or French side finishing 7th in the Premiership or Top 14 – but that’s all water under the bridge. Last season’s triumph means that Connacht have reached the top tier through their own efforts, and their Round One victory over the most successful side in European history, Toulouse, shows that they are a force to be reckoned with.
Today’s game will be the first ever competitive meeting between Wasps and Connacht, but there have been three pre-season friendlies, beginning with Wasps’ first game at Adams Park, back in 2002/3. It ended in a narrow 33-27 home win. Connacht’s team included two men who were to become Irish internationals after joining Wasps – Eoin Reddan and Johnny O’Connor. After the game, Lawrence Dallaglio told Director of Rugby Warren Gatland that he should sign the Connacht number 7, as he’d been “a pain in the arse”.
O’Connor, aka Johnny O’Concrete, joined Wasps the following year, and was with us for four seasons, during which time we won five trophies. Cruel luck with injury meant that he missed all but one of the five finals. He started the 2006 Powergen Cup final, but misfortune struck again, as he suffered a serious neck injury in the first minute. Eoin Reddan joined Wasps from Munster, in the summer of 2005, and was more fortunate, playing in three victorious finals. He will always be remembered for his try in the 2007 Heineken Cup final, from a cunning move around the front of the lineout, which was the brainchild of assistant coach Leon Holden. It was named Prada, as it was successfully tried out, just as Shaun Edwards walked past, proudly wearing a new leather jacket.
The other two friendlies were ahead of the 2013/14 and 2014/15 seasons. The first was played at The Showground, in sunny, but blustery conditions. Galway is renowned for its strong winds, and there was a famous occasion when a close-range kick at goal, from in front of the posts, cleared the bar, but was then blown back over it. No such dramas in August 2013, as Wasps recorded a comfortable 31-7 win. The following year, at Adams Park, it ended 28-18 in favour of Dai Young’s team.
It was at Adams Park that another former Connacht man, Peter Bracken, scored one of the funniest tries ever seen in professional rugby, in our 42-23 win over Harlequins, in September 2006. As the genial Irish prop arrived, unopposed, at the line, he decided to embellish his score with an extravagant dive. His ambitious attempt to emulate an Arctic snow fox, trying to catch a lemming, was doomed to failure. The takeoff went well enough, as he soared skywards, but the return journey was rather less successful. He crashed to the ground, landing heavily on his chest, activating local seismographs and sending the crowd into hysterics. He left Wasps at the end of that season, with a Heineken Cup winner’s medal in his hand. When he went back to Ireland, a few days after the Twickenham triumph, his home town gave him a hero’s welcome. If reports are to be believed, he was driven up and down the main street on the back of a tractor, greeted by banners saying “Peter Bracken. European Champion!” Who wouldn’t have loved to be there?
To those who have crossed the Irish Sea to be here today – you are very welcome visitors. To those making the journey to Galway next week – you will receive the warmest of Irish welcomes, but make sure you wrap up warm!