The advent of professionalism has intensified that fight, especially as the governing body gave serious consideration to cutting them adrift as a professional identity in 2003.
That is why a derby against Munster, Leinster or Ulster always carries even more resonance for the westerners, especially when one of the big three roll up in Galway. So, you can imagine the disappointment in the administrative office of Connacht rugby last Thursday when, with a sell-out crowd just short of 8,000 posted well in advance of the New Year’s Day visit of Munster, the heavens opened all day to accompany the gale-force Atlantic winds that swept into the heart of the stadium.
To their credit, 7,745 brave souls turned up, despite the atrocious conditions, with the sole objective of getting behind their heroes. The exposed open terrace that housed the majority of the Connacht faithful for years has been covered to improve the spectator experience. That has been a spectacular success and a cherished ticket for the new Clan Terrace has rapidly become a badge of honour around these parts.
The atmosphere on that terrace would do justice to the very best Kingsholm’s famous shed has to offer. Even Munster have taken a lead from this Connacht initiative by replicating the structure at the revamped Musgrave Park which is set to re-open this month when the Irish Wolfhounds face England Saxons. It will be interesting to see if, over time, that structure captures the imagination of the Munster faithful.
Who knows, the loyal Munster following from Cork and Waterford may even be offered a few decent fixtures soon to go with the redeveloped stadium. The regularity with which Musgrave Park has hosted Zebre and the Dragons has meant the visiting players and supporters are almost on first-name terms at this stage.
Back to Connacht where, as with all sporting organisations undergoing change, progress comes at a cost. In times past, when you approached the entrance to the carpark at the Sportsground, a welcoming hand was outstretched before the car window was down. The warm greeting was always the same: “Great to see you, you’re welcome to Galway.” On this occasion, however, it was a rather more stern: “You’re not on the list.”
Thankfully, past performance still counts for something in this great city and a space was graciously allocated.
In my experience, playing Connacht at the Sportsground was always a tricky encounter. The weather was invariably crap — nothing has changed on that front — for the biannual inter-provincial visit. The fact that the greyhounds used to avail of the playing surface inside the running track to exercise their bowel movements at least made it conducive to an offloading game, as players had an extra incentive to stay on their feet.
Going to deck was to be avoided at all costs.
Those days are long gone, however, and the playing surface at the Sportsground has been immaculate for some time. It is but one of many significant changes that have taken place in Connacht rugby. In fact, the only setback in recent times was the fact that new CEO Tom Sears, who took over after 13 years of great service from Gerry Kelly, was gone within 15 months of his appointment.
The fact he has been replaced by a former Connacht player and experienced businessman in Willie Ruane may prove a masterstroke. The chief legacy of Sear’s brief time at the helm is the appointment of Pat Lam, who has done a terrific job and now appears on the verge of committing his future to Connacht rugby for the next three seasons.
As always, when coming into a new environment, it took the former Samoan captain a while to find his feet, but it is obvious to all who visit the Sportsground that Lam has captured the essence of what Connacht rugby is about. He has enhanced even further the connect between the squad and the Connacht public that was nurtured and developed under the reigns of Michael Bradley and Eric Elwood.
Lam has also recruited well and there is an excellent mix in the side at present between quality, homegrown talent and experienced, overseas class. While All Black centurion Mils Muliaina has captured the headlines, Lam’s shrewdest acquisition has been Muliaina’s former Waikato Chiefs teammate, Bundee Aki.
How Munster could do with him and how ironic — given that he was a target of the Munster Professional Board — that he, along with the outstanding Robbie Henshaw, should have done most of the damage to the Munster cause in Connacht’s superb 24-16 victory.
Quite how Connacht were in a position to offer Aki a more attractive package than Munster and reputedly Leinster remains a bit of a mystery, but full marks to Lam. He has landed a real beauty.
It is also clear that his high-profile signings have bought into the culture and share in the vision of Connacht’s future. The manner with which Aki shook hands and hugged all and sundry in the Clan terrace on his way to the dressing room last week suggested he fully grasped the significance of the occasion. The key question now is whether his presence, along with that of Muliaina, will be sufficient to keep Henshaw in his native province. The rumour mill was in full tilt in Galway last Thursday that Ireland’s most exciting young prospect was Leinster-bound next season.
Given everything Connacht are trying to achieve, that would prove a body blow. With Lam about to commit his future to the province, retaining Henshaw, who has another year to run on his contract, would be the icing on the cake.
Much will surely depend on whether Connacht qualify for the Champions Cup next season.
Scarlets defeat of table-toppers Ospreys last Saturday will have hurt the Connacht cause in that respect, but there will be many slips and turns before the final league placings are decided in May. Beating Munster is another significant step in the right direction, given it has only happened twice in the last 42 encounters.
The only Connacht survivor from the previous win, a 12-6 victory in Galway in December 2008, was John Muldoon, who was inspirational again in captaining Connacht to victory last week. Ironically, Munster hadn’t a single survivor from their match-day squad. Ian Keatley did feature, however, accounting for all of Connacht’s points over six years ago.
On so many occasions in the recent past, the Fields of Athenry has echoed from the stands and terraces to usher in another memorable and triumphant day in Munster’s proud history. It must have been a little confusing therefore for Peter O’Mahony and his troops to hear Pete St John’s Irish classic bellow from all corners of the ground after such a comprehensive defeat.
In a final act of defiance on a memorable day for Connacht, the people of the West were only reclaiming what is rightfully theirs in the first place. If they keep playing like this, they will achieve a lot more before this season runs its course.
This year could hardly have got off to a better start for Pat Lam and his proud squad.