There was absolute silence in the room when he mentioned it. “There will come a day when Connacht will go through this town on an open top bus parading a trophy.”
“It may not happen this year, it may not be next year and given that it hasn’t happened for well over a century, who knows how long we will have to wait.
“But some day, at some stage, Connacht will win a cup and it will be paraded through the streets of Galway.
“And my question to you is this: why can’t you be that team, why can’t you be the team that is remembered forever as the ones who did it,” he said.
This wasn’t Pat Lam speaking. This was Michael Bradley in August 2003, six months after Connacht clawed their way back from the brink of extinction when the IRFU reluctantly decided not to disband them after a public outcry.
We were at a team meeting upstairs in the Cawley Room in the new Connacht headquarters at the Sportsground when Bradley laid down the challenge.
“Jaysus Brads, you had them thinking there,” I said to him afterwards.
“It’ll happen some day John, it has to, sooner or later. You and I might not be part of it but some day a Connacht team will come along, maybe it will be these guys, and they’ll go the whole way. Maybe we will have to wait but it’ll happen. And then the place will go mad.”
One of the first text messages I received on an emotional Saturday evening was from Michael Bradley. He took pleasure that I would have little time now to finish a book on Connacht rugby which I have been working on, and also that the open-top bus tour would finally take place.
He went close to sorting that open-top bus tour himself in his first year in charge.
He built a team from the ashes after the failed attempt to get rid of the province.
A decent run in Europe gained serious momentum and suddenly we were in the semi-finals of the Challenge Cup.
The games were played over two legs and having lost 31-22 at The Stoop, there was a great chance of reaching the province’s first final.
The Sportsground was packed, the supporters marched up College Road and there was a real feel this would be the day Connacht would step up and join the big boys.
And it was so close! With time running out and us four points down on aggregate we secured a lineout in the right corner a few metres short of the line. All we needed to do was win the ball and maul it over. We lost the lineout and bowed out 49-45.
I really believe that defeat set Connacht rugby back a decade. It wouldn’t have mattered had we lost the final to Montferrand (as Clermont were then known), we just needed to get there. It took another 12 years to make that step.
The most common question asked on Saturday was ‘did you ever think you would see the day?’, and, hand on heart, most of us doubted we would.
The divide between Connacht and the other sides just seemed to be getting wider in the past decade. Is it any wonder the release of emotion after Saturday’s game? These are the same people from Galway, Mayo, Roscommon, Leitrim, and Sligo who have suffered down through the years on the GAA fields as well.
Pat Lam has made it clear all along that this was being done not just for the rugby fraternity, it was for everyone. And it wasn’t just for those inside the tent at the moment, but for all those who served on and off the field down through the decades.
They were all there on Saturday, a journey which began years ago had finally reached its destination and the days when Connacht were just one stroke of a pen from being wiped out seemed like something from a different era.
I had come on board in the summer of 2002, the first full-time rugby manager in the country. It was never going to be a career for me, just a year out of journalism to do something unique. Within months the threat of extinction raised its head and my time in the Sportsground stretched longer than intended. Back then, when people were marching on the IRFU offices and scuds were being thrown left, right, and centre behind the scenes, the key thing from all involved was that we needed to keep the side alive, keep it in existence, so that some day the promised land might be reached.
Brads said at that team meeting that none of us knew the day nor the place when it would happen.
But we know it now.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved