Thursday, January 16, 2014

My Beloved Connacht and the HCup Privilege

Care to win a pair of match tickets to Saracens v Connacht this weekend courtesy of Heineken?

Then by all means click here to find out how.

One fan certainly not taking the Heineken Cup for granted is @Connachtman87…

Connachtman avatar

My beloved Connacht fell short in Galway this weekend, and my heart sank to think of all the lost opportunities! Having said that, if you would have told me a few years ago that we would be going into Round 6 with a chance of qualification, even a mathematical one, I'd have thought I was dreaming!

It has been a tough season out West, and I for one think there are big question marks around the Coach, but to be in this position is something I could never take for granted. Hopefully the boys will be made well aware of the significance of this match, particularly in light of the imminent change in format for the European Cup next season.

The next game the province plays at the top level in Europe could well be many years off, a sobering thought after the highs of the last three years. Indeed, this could be a one off opportunity to make our mark on Europe. A glorious opportunity to make a stand against a team who are at the centre of the political wrangling which has threatened our precious game and this most wonderful of competitions. To throw it in the face of a certain so-called journalist who doesn't rate us - indeed he hates us! - by winning at a venue which has no history in this competition; a venue which is a product of the inherent commercialism in the English game, right down to its hybrid, fake-grass playing surface.

The Saracens can never understand what it means to us to play in this reverential competition. They cannot appreciate what a privilege it is for us to participate in the Heineken Cup because we could never take it for granted. We watched on from the Challenge Cup wilderness for so many years as the other Provinces had their glory days and asked only to be allowed to dine at the same table as those legends. The very system itself conspired to keep us out for so long before, mercifully, that same system, and the same Irish provincial success, granted us the keys to the gates of heaven and let us in! Such was the sense of celebration and the outpouring of emotion the day Thierry Dusatoir and Toulouse came to the Sportsground that the defeat against the giants of European Rugby felt like a noble moral victory against the odds! They came to the Sportsground, and they came in force, as Guy Noves recognised the occasion and paid us the highest compliment.

That wasn't the best of seasons for us, but it mattered for a few very important reasons. It has been said that the average Irish Rugby fan has come to feel more connected with their Province than the National team in recent years, and I can attest to this. Declan Kidney and his men seemed so far removed in Carton House and the Aviva Stadium, but when I leant my voice to the crowd in the Sportsground on a rain-soaked night in January 2012, I felt like I mattered!

I've never felt anything like it before or since but on that night I felt like every ounce of energy I could put into roaring at the top of my lungs helped Michael Swift stand up and make another tackle, as we downed the mighty Harlequins in a ferocious battle of determination and will! Quins were at the height of their abilities, but we did more than just beat them that night, we knocked them out! Word went around after the final whistle that Gloucester had beaten Toulouse in the other pool match and our little 3-penalty victory on the edge of the Rugby World had put the mighty Rouge et Noir into the Quarter Finals. They loved us for that, and word came back that they thought our fans were some of the best that had ever visited their mighty Ernest-Wallon fortress.

Of course, that wasn't to be the end of that particular saga. Before we would meet again we had taken down the once great Biarritz and we were on the Sky Sports map! By the time we came full circle and returned to Toulouse once again we had added a few new weapons to the armoury and our fledgling internationals out-gunned the once-great Galacticos before settling down to grind out a win with blood and guts defence. It was magic!

The league results have never matched-up, a sticking point for all us hardcore Rugby heads! When you spend as much time analysing the game as some of us Twiterati do you just don't appreciate the one-off results as much as some people, and that's a shame. I shouldn't care about a disappointing home loss to Scarlets that much, but I just do! We may not have the pedigree of the other three Provinces have, we have to make do with what we have got; and that's heart! I am as weary of the 'plucky' moniker as the next Connacht fan, but when I think back to that rainy night in January 2012 I remember the sheer bloody-mindedness of it all! We've tried to develop some flash over the last couple of seasons, but like every Rugby team ever, you are at your best when you're revved up and ready to smash a few lads!

So when I say I hope the Connacht lads understand what this fixture means to us, I really mean it! Someone needs to get them in a room this week and spell it out: this game can never mean as much to Saracens, or anyone else for that matter, as it means to us. This game is for every fan who has every stood in the Sportsground on one of those miserable Friday nights only Galway can produce. For every Connacht fan who has ever watched a Munster match with envy and admiration, shouting the lads on with every yard won, desperately hoping for the day that it could be his men in green scaling the European Heights. For every tackle Michael Swift has ever made where you thought there was nothing more the man could do only to see him get up and make another, get up and make another and never ask for anything from you, though he deserves every last bit of your respect and admiration.

The Heineken Cup journey may come to an end this weekend for Connacht, and it may be the maths that does for us in the end. But we have a chance to go out on our terms. So much of this opportunity has been granted to us because of the achievements of our neighbours. But we have proved our worth in this competition. We have proved the naysayers wrong. We have proved we can compete, and win. And now to have a chance to win once more and return to the Challenge Cup, not as leftovers of the Professional game in Ireland, but as true men of European Rugby's highest echelon. That would indeed be a fitting conclusion to our European odyssey.

Connachtman [@connachtman87] - sometime blogger, long time reader, avid supporter of Connacht rugby against all odds and in any weather.


Taken by JLP from RDS press box on Nov 16, 2019