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As Leicester City’s wonderful story of triumph in the English Premier League was taking shape over the past nine months, another unlikely tale of an underdog made good was unfolding in the world of European rugby. And it reached its climax on Saturday night last.
Then, Connacht – the oft-forgotten fourth Irish province behind Leinster, Ulster and Munster – captured the Pro12 title in Edinburgh after dominating a memorable final against multiple champions Leinster.
It was a victory for the high-risk, adventurous, glorious to watch rugby that Samoan coach Pat Lam has introduced in his two years with the team. Bravery won out too: at one point the team lost eight games in a row, but they stuck to the high skills-based gameplan until it finally clicked this season.
More than that, it was a victory for a region that has been under-resourced and criminally neglected by rugby authorities for most of its 131-year history. In fact, just over ten years ago, the Irish Rugby Football Union even considered shutting down Connacht as a professional team so financial resources could be deployed to aid the other three provinces.
And now? The ultimate redemption in a thousand different ways. Many of the team are, to be brutal about it, players who other professional units didn’t want (echoes of the Leicester FC story), including the flying wingers Matt Healy and Nigerian-born, Dublin-raised Niyi Adeolokun, Irishman but US international fly-half AJ MacGinty and even New Zealander and Pro12 player of the year Bundee Aki, who the All Blacks might just want back now.
The way this collection of talented local youngsters, journeymen and overseas imports has grown into a finely tuned unit has been remarkable too. One instance before the final summed up the ‘all for one, one for all’ ethos. After Irish star Robbie Henshaw’s laptop and college notes were stolen from his car, he and his team-mates used tracking technology to uncover their whereabouts. They then turned up in a Galway housing estate to confront the thief. It appears the threat of a fearsome Bundee Aki with his dander up persuaded the young offender to return the equipment without an argument.
And the connection to The Moodie Davitt Report? Well, although I’m originally from Dublin, Connacht and specifically its regional capital Galway is the place I now call home. My wife grew up here and both my parents came from the region, from counties Mayo and Leitrim, and met at university in Galway before moving to Dublin. That makes this a personal as well as a sporting story – and not just because I’m a season ticket holder at Connacht.
It’s a small city, so the ties that bind people are multi-layered. My daughter Ciara plays hurling with the child of another international and Connacht player, Nathan White (one of a number of imports who have made this place their home). My other child Aoife was in the same swimming squad for years with the daughter of Eric Elwood, former Connacht player and coach and an Irish international in the 1990s, and who is still involved heavily in the club’s academy.
Most days during the late summer, when my kids are taking turns jumping into the sea off the high diving platform at nearby Blackrock, the players will turn up after pre-season training and join in – and they’ll queue up for their turn off the board like everyone else.
There are other connections too. Colm McLoughlin, Executive Vice Chairman of Dubai Duty Free, is a proud Galway and Connacht man. Perhaps less well known outside Ireland is the fact that both of his brothers, Ray and Feidlim, captained Connacht’s rugby team, and both played for Ireland too.
When, on Sunday night at the homecoming, Pat Lam called up every member of the squad and importantly listed where they came from, he name-checked many a small town in the west that had been left behind in Ireland’s boom years, starved of investment and denuded of its young population: Clifden, Clarinbridge, Ballina, Athlone. Now, thanks to the deeds of these young men, the people of those places can walk a little taller this week.
You could see that pride on the night the team arrived home. Over 2,000 people came to greet them at Knock Airport when they landed at 2am. And through village after village, the road home to Galway was lined with bonfires – the traditional west of Ireland welcome for returning heroes.
Lam and inspirational captain John Muldoon – a Portumna man who had the chance to leave Connacht many times in his career for better money – led the crowd on Sunday in the province’s signature song The Fields of Athenry. But for me there’s another song that captures the essence of this journey, one that the club recently began playing before home matches.
It’s called The West’s Awake and was written by Thomas Davis, an activist for Irish freedom in the 1840s. He chronicles the west of Ireland’s long “slumber deep” and its rising as “a voice like thunder” spoken, a lovely metaphor for the transformation on the rugby field in the past two years.
As the boys in green showed at the weekend, the west really has awoken.
When all beside a vigil keep,
The West’s asleep, the West’s asleep
Alas! and well may Erin weep
When Connacht lies in slumber deep.
There lake and plain smile fair and free,
‘Mid rocks their guardian chivalry.
Sing, Oh ! let man learn liberty
From crashing wind and lashing sea.
That chainless wave and lovely land
Freedom and nationhood demand;
Be sure the great God never planned
For slumb’ring slaves a home so grand.
And long a brave and haughty race
Honoured and sentinelled the place.
Sing, Oh! not even their sons’ disgrace
Can quite destroy their glory’s trace.
For often, in O’Connor’s van,
To triumph dashed each Connacht clan.
And fleet as deer the Normans ran
Thro’ Corrsliabh Pass and Ardrahan;
And later times saw deeds as brave,
And glory guards Clanricard’s grave,
Sing, Oh! they died their land to save
At Aughrim’s slopes and Shannon’s wave.
And if, when all a vigil keep,
The West’s asleep! the West’s asleep!
Alas! and well may Erin weep
That Connacht lies in slumber deep.
But, hark! a voice like thunder spake,
The West’s awake! the West’s awake!
Sing, Oh! hurrah! let England quake,
We’ll watch till death for Erin’s sake.