It was January 2003 and the Irish Rugby Football Union (IRFU) was considering scraping one of its professional teams. The one on the chopping block was Connacht, the western-most of Ireland’s four provinces.
Based in Galway on the Atlantic coast, Connacht had long been the runt of the Irish rugby litter, with few if any players in the running for national selection, it was seen as unsustainable, and unnecessary – not a rugby heartland.
Fast forward 13 years and perennial cellar-dwellers, Ireland’s Westerners were Guinness Pro 12 champions, playing a brand of rugby Australian fans would adore – heads-up, smart rugby – under the guidance of Pat Lam (the former Auckland Blues head coach). They destroyed three-time European champions, Leinster, in the 2016 final, in Murrayfield, with a team made up of local talent nurtured through the provincial academy, cast-offs from the other Irish teams, and a couple of imported rough diamonds.
How did a team destined for the scrap heap survive to become high-flyers? Passion. And not just from people from the West, thousands of rugby fans donned the green and white of Connacht, and walked from Searson’s on Baggot Street to the IRFU’s offices on Lansdowne Road, beside the national stadium, to demand that Irish rugby retain four professional teams.
The powers that were relented, and Connacht was spared. Admittedly on a smaller budget than the powerhouses of Leinster, Munster and Ulster, often surviving on players deemed surplus to requirements by the others. Passionate coaches, Michael Bradley and Eric Elwood, went on to lay the foundations for recent success. Connacht Rugby took the game to parts of the province that had Gaelic Football strongholds, and developed a new fan base. Thousands now regular sell out the Sportsgrounds, and plans are being made to develop a bigger venue to cater for the team’s growing support-base.
The Australian Rugby Union’s argument that Australia cannot sustain five Super Rugby franchises is familiar, and once again it appears the men from the West are most at risk of being axed. That may well be the case , but it is hard to argue with the fact that West Australians are showing up in numbers at NIB Stadium, and the Force are playing with a passion that surpasses that shown by other Australian franchises… surely there’s a way to use the Force to build a player-base in the West, and a viable team.
Maybe Australian rugby fans need to take a stand and fight for the Force (and/or the Rebels a whose to say that four teams will be sustainable?). It cannot be left to those in the West to stand alone against the culling of a team that has produced Wallabies in the past.