The men who laid the foundations for Connacht's rugby success

With Connacht preparing for the biggest day in the province’s history Linley MacKenzie spoke to those who helped lay the groundwork for the current generation.
The men who laid the foundations for Connacht's rugby success

Billy Glynn

I first played for Connacht against Leinster in 1961 and we were beaten by one score.

In those days you turned up the night before in some hotel, you met around noon the next day, and the captain, who was the coach, told us the plan.

When the game went professional, I was manager of the Connacht team and we were taken completely by surprise.

In the first year we got five guys to take full time contracts and we used a total of 18 players in about 14 games.

It gradually improved because of the success we had in Europe, but after Warren Gatland took up the Ireland job, we plateaued for a long time, and when the coffers of the IRFU were depleted, it decided it couldn’t afford Connacht anymore.

It wasn’t just frustrating during that time, but incredibly stressful - disappointing to look at people steeped in rugby taking such a narrow view.

Today I’m absolutely thrilled for everyone.

We have gained momentum with increased support, and there are a lot of people even on the periphery who played a big role.

The atmosphere at the Sportsground and in Galway is electric - everyone is proud.”

Noel Mannion

I got my first Connacht cap in 1985 when few people attended matches. It’s so different now - like chalk and cheese.

We had players flying in from England and driving down from Dublin, so we’d have one session to plan together. As it started to get more professional, we’d have a training on a Wednesday in Dublin.

No doubt we were the Cinderella province.

We were always on the wrong end when playing the other provinces, and I make no bones about it, it was difficult to break into the Ireland team.

There was a certain amount of politics in it, but I came on the coattails of some successful Connacht players like John O’Driscoll and Kieran Fitzgerald.

There were times I wondered about the future of Connacht Rugby.

Eric Elwood, Michael Bradley, and Gerry Kelly tried to keep the show on the road, but you saw certain games that were lost by a point or so, and you knew that they were there or thereabouts.

I take great pride and satisfaction (about today) - when you think back to the march in 2003 and what went on, and now they have delivered on it in spades.

It showed there was support and it has its rewards.

Warren Gatland

The Sportsground was no different to New Zealand, except you were sharing it with a dog track and you had to put up with dog poo every now and again.

Even though the game had just gone professional we were training two days a week in Athlone because half the team were coming from Dublin.

Trying to get players to play for Connacht was always a challenge, and we were trying to pick locally as much as we could.

We were up against it, but that had always been the way. We were having fun and enjoying ourselves, punching above our weight.

I have special memories of that season in the Challenge Cup when we qualified for the quarter-finals.

We had wins home and away against Northampton, Begles-Bordeaux and Nice to win the group, and we had a couple of wins against the provinces.

I have always admired what Connacht done - from being almost on the brink of extinction, hanging in there, and working off less funds.

It just goes to show how professionalism has worked - players who didn’t always have the same opportunities, but have persevered can make it as well.

What they have done this year and in the last couple of years has been brilliant.

They have been knocking on the door so I have not been surprised by results this season - they have bought really well in terms of some of their foreign players - not always superstars - but good down-to-earth people and I think that had made a difference.

The crowd last weekend was fantastic - a great occasion.

Connacht should be very proud of where they are.

It is good to see some players being rewarded with selection on the Ireland team.

Indeed, there might be some people questioning if there is enough Connacht representation in the team at present.

Mick Molloy

We were very much limited by numbers. We didn’t have subs, but we were always competitive.

I lived in London for 11 of those years, but still played for Connacht because it was so important to me.

Many of our players were Gaelic players who turned over to the rugby, some, like Barry and John O’Driscoll, came over from Manchester, even though they didn’t have any Connacht connections.

Then we had other people who played for Connacht and were like Robbie Henshaw - they went to Leinster and got capped that way.

It was always difficult retaining players, but there was always great pride.

We just didn’t have the armament to make a difference, and a lot of our good players never got the recognition in Ireland - Mick Casserly from Galwegians was a wonderful player who should have been capped many times.

One of the problems is we had no representation on the selection committee.

I take great satisfaction seeing Connacht in today’s final - getting recognition - moreso because they are making it exciting and have continued that way through the season.

Seeing it happen with such style and panache makes it so satisfying.

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