2003 protest a key moment for Connacht to break new ground

Peter Jackson gets over the gain line, behind the headline...

2003 protest a key moment for Connacht to break new ground

Peter Jackson gets over the gain line, behind the headline...

When the nascent Celtic League came to Galway in the late summer of 2001, a crowd officially estimated at 1,800 turned up for the opening match, against Edinburgh. They did not care much for what they saw.

Against Neath a fortnight later, 70% voted with their feet and the attendance shrunk to 550.

When another Welsh opponent, Caerphilly, turned up the following week, those who still thought it worth the money had shrivelled to 450.

The novelty value was gone. Back then, there would have been few lonelier jobs in professional football of any code anywhere than captaining Connacht, as Tim Allnutt knew all too well.

The numbers made for grim reading in the offices of the IRFU, then losing millions during chaotic attempts to make the new professional game pay its way.

For the haemorrhaging to stop, Connacht had to go.

In Dublin they’d given up on the West, written the place off as a rugby wasteland and condemned it to a fate not dissimilar to those on death row at San Quentin.

Connacht, as a rugby province, would cease to be.

In retrospect it can be seen as a clever move by the IRFU, some shock treatment designed to galvanise Connacht and its junior clubs from Creggs to Corrib as never before, to goad them into kicking up a fuss. If so, it worked like a dream.

As protest marches go, the one from Searson’s pub in Upper Baggot Street to the Union offices at Lansdowne Road in January 2003 hardly bears comparison to the Jarrow Crusade or the Montgomery-Selma civil rights action of the mid-60s except that Connacht’s mobilised forces were also fighting for a way of life.

The sheer passion of their cause prompted the IRFU into a U-turn.

Connacht had not been granted a mere stay of execution but a reprieve. They would be cold-shouldered no more.

This month’s 16th anniversary of the march for salvation finds Connacht wrestling with a very different crowd problem, from not having one to finding the room to squeeze them all in.

The numbers, pushed to an all-time high during the PRO12 title season under Pat Lam and John Muldoon, keep going through the roof.

Their last home match, Ulster before Christmas, generated a record sell-out 8,129. The next one, Munster on Saturday, will probably top that by a few, the last ticket having gone yesterday.

Even for as ardent a subscriber to Blue Sky Thinking as Tim Allnutt, that would have taken some believing when he marched on Lansdowne Road as a player amidst a crowd of 1,200, one bearing a placard proclaiming: ‘Peace in Iraq and Connacht.’

“Those were scary times for a lot of people when we were fighting for our existence,’’ says Allnutt, the long-serving team manager. “The West of Ireland wanted to have its voice heard and in between the jigs and the reels, we were given a lifeline.

“When I look back, I look back to days when we didn’t have floodlights and when we struggled for crowds. We were competing against soccer, Gaelic and hurling and we’d have been lucky to get a thousand people.

“But I always felt rugby had a place here. We did have a chip on our shoulder because we were fighting for this and then we’d be fighting for that. We had to fight for everything but we did so knowing we could make it work.

“The support the IRFU has given Connacht and the club game is awesome.”

Allnutt made the long haul from Waimate in the South Island of New Zealand to the outer western rim of Europe never intending to stay any longer than it would take him ‘to do the big OE’, the Kiwi acronym for overseas experience. In the 19 years since starting a visit to see his brother Simon play for Castlebar, Allnutt is still there, married to a Galway girl (Geraldine) and with three rugby-playing sons (Jake 13, Sam 10, and Mark 8).

The development of the Sportsground is due to go far beyond raising the current capacity via the provision of three extra steps of terracing behind both goals. Under the direction of chief executive Willie Ruane, plans have been submitted to transform it into a 12,000-capacity, state–of-the-art venue at a cost of €30m.

“This is what the West of Ireland needs,” says Allnutt. “We’re pretty confident we could have the new stadium up and running in a couple of years’ time.”

A World Cup for old men?

The dawning of a New Year brings renewed hope that before it’s done, 2019 will have ridiculed the theory that the World Cup is no place for old men.

With a bit of luck, it will be smashed to smithereens.

We are talking here about a lot more than Rory Best, on course to overtake Ireland’s oldest World Cup campaigner, former Lions prop Phil Orr, 36 when he lined up for The Rose of Tralee at Ireland’s pioneering global tie, against Wales in Wellington in 1987.

The Grand Slammers’ evergreen captain will be 37 upon his scheduled arrival in Japan this year which makes him a wet-behind-the-ears slip of a lad compared to the daddy of them all, Rodrigo Capo Ortega.

The Uruguayan will be approaching 39 provided he comes out of international retirement and leads Los Teros on one final mission.

Where the most durable of second-rows is concerned, nothing can be taken for granted.

Four years ago, Capo Ortega announced his retirement, staying put at Castres and giving the last World Cup a wide berth.

Other veterans will be busting a gut to make it, including Ma’a Nonu who launches a Super Rugby come-back next month shortly before turning 37.

Samoa’s fly-half, Tusi Pusi is the same age, a year older than Italy’s once peerless No 8 Sergio Parisse.

There are still wings still sprightly enough to make one more World Cup at 35.

Injury-permitting, Newcastle’s Vereniki Goneva will be there with Fiji although Adam Ashley-Cooper has a much more hazardous course to negotiate on his comeback as a Wallaby.

Most of the hazards, ironically, are posed by Fijian Aussies like Marika Koroibete and Sefa Naivalu.

Clubs proving to be a big draw

It comes to something when Thomond Park fails to make the cut for the three highest attendances of the festive period, all the more surprising given that the number who witnessed Munster out-slug the champions of Europe added up to the biggest of the season: 26,267.

Three clubs had more. Toulouse’s switch of venue against Toulon to the city’s football stadium provided room for almost 33,000, marginally more than Wasps against Bath in Coventry (31,626), a figure dwarfed by Harlequins’ filling Twickenham to its 82,000 limit, against Wasps. And to think Leinster used to struggle to get a couple of thousand for an inter-pro match at Donnybrook. As a famous old Lion, wary of professionalism highlighting a conflict between club and country, advised me: “Don’t waste your time writing about the clubs. They’ll never get crowds to compare with international rugby.”

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