Matches away from home for Connacht used to follow a fairly similar pattern.
The lads would meet up in the Sportsground to get on the bus, usually to Dublin Airport, most of them chirpy unless it was a red-eye start.
Sit anywhere you wanted but guys gravitated to the same seats. Coach and assistant coach in front seat, chief executive and manager opposite them behind the driver. Younger lads would pick the safety of the middle of the bus, the senior players would take the seats of privilege at the back.
Three hours or more in the pre-motorway days to Dublin, food in the ALSAA complex in Dublin Airport followed by a flight out.
Soup and sandwiches on arrival at the hotel, then the banter would stop and it would be all business for the captain’s run, then dinner at the hotel. Another couple of rounds of food would be consumed by kick-off the following day, then the match, usually a loss, more food and turn for home and repeat the journey back.
A decade ago when I was manager we used to budget around €20,000 for a game in the UK, a bit more for Europe. A lot of money spent, especially with the vast majority of games ending in defeat; arriving back at the Sportsground battered and blue, and beaten. And for what?
For what? For days like last Sunday, that’s for what. There isn’t a single person dead or alive who has ever won a medal playing senior rugby for Connacht. Not since they started way back in the 1880s, not a single bit of silverware. And let’s face, that’s not likely to change soon.
So, success is measured by the individual battles, even a home Rabo win over the Dragons sparks off great celebrations. But none has been as good as Sunday’s stunning 16-14 win at Stade Ernest Wallon.
That said, I have never enjoyed a Connacht win less. At least while it was happening. We have been down this road before many times, a battling performance, a great victory coming into sight and then… a dropped ball, a dodgy call from a home touch judge, or a moment of brilliance from some international who has been twiddling his thumbs all evening, and then we can crank up the keyboards and start recounting another hard luck story.
Even with the clock at 80 minutes I was still more prepared to start scribbling that sort of stuff than the draft of history which was the pleasure in charting on Sunday night.
But whatever about us, the likes of John Muldoon has been experiencing that sort of heartbreak for over a decade. And yet, with a straight face, or at least as much of it as we could make out under the bruising, blood and cuts, he told us afterwards that he knew they would win in Toulouse on Sunday.
“Honest to God we thought we were going to win. We did. We don’t think we deserve to be bottom of the league table, we are playing better than that.
“We are disgusted in ourselves, where we are in the day to day. We believe we are doing a lot of good things, for whatever reason we haven’t got over the line. We felt a bit of confidence and maybe that would kick-start us,” said the 31-year-old.
Muldoon must often wish he had stuck for an easier life of collecting silverware with Portumna hurlers and he has been in a fair few Connacht dressing rooms dealing with a crisis. The 43-10 loss in Edinburgh a week before they went over and stunned the most prolific winners of the Heineken Cup in their own fortress, was the latest bit of trauma.
“We had a tough week last week, some harsh words. In fairness, [coach] Pat [Lam] gave the majority of the lads a chance to redeem themselves because last week wasn’t good enough.
“Look, they’re one of the top teams in Europe. We knew that, we understood that they were going to throw the kitchen sink at us early. We had to be resilient.”
Sorting out the state of mind will be just as difficult this week, trying to get lads down from the high. But just as much as Muldoon knows how to pull them up off the ground, a decade of knocks ensures he won’t let anyone lose the run of themselves.
“We are delighted for the fans, they deserve their day as well, but we won’t be getting ahead of ourselves,” he noted.
Dan Parks has only been with Connacht for a year-and-a-half but he has ingrained himself locally as if he spent most of his illustrious career there. And he was the one man in the Connacht camp on Sunday morning who knew what it was like to win a Heineken Cup match in Stade Ernest Wallon, having scored 21 points in January 2009 when Glasgow stunned Toulouse 33-26.
The former Scotland international has been through it all on the international scene, yet he admitted he was stunned at the final whistle and by the 16-14 scoreline.
“I just can’t explain what I felt. I stood there at the end of the game and looked around and just thought to myself, ‘this is unreal’.
“I did it four years ago with Glasgow and to do it again was pretty special.”
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