Connacht's Aviva Stadium gamble proves a costly one

The western province opted to play their home URC game against Ulster at Lansdowne Road but hopes of a bumper crowd appear wide of the mark
Connacht's Aviva Stadium gamble proves a costly one

Connacht and Ulster played a PRO14 clash in an empty Aviva Stadium in August 2020. They return there for their URC clash, a move not welcomed by all in the western province; it appears season ticket holders were not canvassed for their view. Picture: James Crombie/Inpho

There must be times when Connacht feel they are damned if they do and damned if they don’t.

Moving Saturday's game against Ulster to the Aviva Stadium falls right into that.

On one hand, a chance to make some serious money, perhaps attract new support in Dublin from Connacht people there or maybe use it as an opportunity to showcase their talents in an international stadium.

On the other hand, you invite derision for giving up home advantage in a derby game — can you imagine any of their other provinces doing it? — and if, as feared, the crowd will not be much bigger than what they might have got in the Sportsground, then what was the point of it all in the first place?

And that’s before the result of the match is taken into account, a task made more difficult by the absence of Bundee Aki with a knee injury as they prepare to take on a side with four bonus-point wins.

Connacht, like all the other provinces and indeed all sports organisations, have had their finances hit badly by Covid and were probably hounding the IRFU for money. That’s when the Aviva Stadium was offered to them free of charge for the Ulster game. Here’s the dance hall for a night, go make some money.

It made sense to grab it on a number of fronts. The number of people allowed into stadiums has remained uncertain, right up to this week. Crowds at the Sportsground have been limited to just over 3,000. Some of the Connacht squad have never played at the Aviva Stadium.

It could be an occasion.

But there were equally compelling reasons to turn down the offer. The initial response to the announcement in Galway was poor. It wasn’t helped by an emphasis being placed by Connacht on fans having been canvassed for their opinion.

And while the Clan, the supporters club, were asked, it appears that season ticket holders were not canvassed for their view. Neither, it would seem, were the businesses who sponsor them. Many immediately felt disenfranchised.

The notion that thousands of west of Ireland people living in Dublin and on the east coast would turn up at the Aviva to see their home province was wishful thinking. It has never been noticeable when Connacht play in Dublin every year against Leinster.

Home advantage is supposed to count for something — although, ironically, Connacht’s results at the Sportsground have been poor in the past year or so, while they have been good on the road. Not many teams like coming to the Sportsground. The wind, and usually rain, are a big factor and the home support are able to create a fairly boisterous atmosphere.

Filling, or at the very least getting a decent crowd in, national stadiums for fixtures like these are not done overnight. The London and Welsh clubs who bring club games to Twickenham and Cardiff usually spend months selling such fixtures. Most of those clubs hire staff whose sole function is to sell out that specific game. The ‘big event’ fixture requires resources and it can’t be done in a matter of weeks.

In hindsight, the ideal fixture Connacht have plumped for is their Champions Cup clash against Stade Francais in December. Leinster are playing Bath at the Aviva that weekend but it could have been worked around.

Taking on the French giants in Dublin wouldn’t be giving up home advantage in the same way as it is to another Irish province.

The fixture might also appeal to neutrals but, more importantly, there would have been sufficient time for Connacht to resource the selling of the fixture and build an event in the lead-up to Christmas.

When the IRFU backed off shutting down Connacht almost two decades ago, they made it clear that the province had to do a lot more for itself. There are 43 players listed in the senior squad section on the Connacht website. Only 20 of them have player sponsors listed. Of those, 16 of them are sponsored by Galway pubs, restaurants, or hotels. You can understand their frustration at seeing the first big rugby fixture in a year and a half being moved out of Galway on a bank holiday weekend. The other 23 players don’t have sponsors listed.

It is now three years since Connacht, with much fanfare, announced a €30m revamp of the Sportsground. In January 2020 the Government pledged €20m towards the cost of it.

Connacht said they would come up with the remaining €10m from their “own resources”, although this part has never been fully explained. Is it a loan? Who will underwrite it? And what, if anything, are the IRFU putting into it? It is estimated that building costs have jumped between 8%-10% in that time. That’s about an extra €3m.

And what impact has Covid on all of this, not least the IRFU coffers and their investment plans? Connacht are hopeful of replacing the pitch in the summer and then doing the rest of the revamp over the next year or two.

The hope is a modern stadium will generate the sort of finance needed for a professional team to compete. It remains to be seen if the numbers are there to do that. The PRO12 win of 2016 seems a long way off but Connacht are not the first team to not make success count.

Their lack of resources is making it increasingly harder to compete. They had their eye on a senior player released by one of the other provinces They went to the player with an offer that, from their perspective, was pushing the boat out. The player turned them down because their offer was just 50% of what had been on and he went elsewhere.

Any wonder then that Connacht would jump at any opportunity to raise some finance?

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