Connacht prepared as VIPs head west

GERRY KELLY was working on an intriguing seating plan as darkness fell in the Sportsgrounds yesterday.

Kelly, the province’s chief executive officer, was out and about getting his hands dirty ahead of the stadium’s historic first Heineken Cup game against tournament aristocrats Toulouse.

“In Connacht everyone has to put their shoulders to the wheel,” he laughed when quizzed on such a hands-on role by a CEO less that 24 hours ahead of such an occasion. “As I said to someone earlier in the week it is a bit like getting organised for the station mass in the house. People will have to take us as they find us.”

The 9,000 coming through the gates this evening will be impressed at what awaits.

An army of workers, with Kelly in their ranks, have been kept busy this week putting the finishing touches to the massive redevelopment work undertaken in this corner of Galway in the off-season. The work includes the expansion of the Clan Terrace along with the construction of an additional toilet block, bar and catering facilities.

“Everything is complete now,” he reported. “We have a crew working through the night putting up some temporary terracing. There was greyhound racing last night and we had to wait until after that to undertake this work. But we will have a capacity of 9,000 on Saturday and it is a sell out.”

The benefits of Connacht’s arrival on the European stage don’t begin and end with rugby. Galway city and the surrounding regions are already enjoying the benefits of this elevation to European rugby’s top table.

Kelly agreed: “In the past we would have read about the impact of the Heineken Cup on a city like Limerick and how important it was in terms of generating business for the pubs, the hotels, the restaurants and the guesthouses.

“And we are already experiencing a touch of that for this first game. I gather that bed nights are very scarce around the city and if you look around town so many businesses are buying into this with green flags and buntings in many premises.

“People see this as a huge opportunity. Hopefully that will continue to be the case.”

Eric Elwood makes one change to the side defeated by Harlequins last weekend for this evening’s game. Ray Ofisa, injured in the 17-25 loss, is on the bench, with Dave Gannon in the second row and Mike McCarthy switching to flanker.

Toulouse, who defeated Gloucester 21-17 last weekend, are showing a strong hand. French stars Thierry Dusautoir and Vincent Clerc are named in a star-studded line-up which also includes Clement Poitrenaud, Maxime Medard, Yannick Jauzion, Lionel Beauxis and hooker William Servat.

The loss to Harlequins earned Connacht plenty of plaudits from rugby neutrals but sadly nothing in the way of a losing bonus point.

Kelly admitted: “We were all disappointed that we didn’t get something out of the game.

“We were very proud of the performance we produced in our first game in the Heineken Cup.”

Oh we almost forgot that seating plan which was keeping Kelly busy well into the night.

“We have a lot of VIPs and dignitaries coming to the game. We have President Michael D Higgins, Taoiseach Enda Kenny, the president of the IRFU, the chairman of the IRFU, the mayor of Galway and many others.

“I am not sure yet where I will be sitting but I might be next to Enda Kenny.

“Whoever I am sitting next to I will probably have to tone down my usual match day language!”

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