To hell or to the Heineken Cup
January 13, 2010
Connacht's versatile back Gavin Duffy won the last of his 10 Ireland caps against the United States last summer © Getty Images
Oliver Cromwell may be one of England's most prominent historical figures but mention of his name still elicits a shudder and/or a hiss of contempt in Ireland.
Understandably so, given that the roundhead is associated with genocide, religious persecution and mass dispossession of the Catholic community during his Viking-esque Irish campaign between 1649 and 1650. He is also responsible for the phrase "to hell or to Connacht" when, under the 1652 Act for the settlement of Ireland, Catholic landowners were forced to give up their holdings and were reallocated poorer land in the farming-unfriendly western province.
More than 350 years later, Connacht's status as the poor relation of Ireland's provincial family is unaltered. This applies to rugby also with Connacht routinely referred to as the "Cinderella province" as Munster, Leinster and Ulster garner trophies, international stars and, consequently, greater exposure.
Eight years ago, Connacht supporters marched on the Irish Rugby Football Union (IRFU) offices in Dublin after the union tried to pull the plug on the financial drain that was their fourth provincial professional entity. The IRFU eventually relented and Connacht were allowed to continue but the intervening period has not witnessed any tangible improvement in their fortunes as, deprived of the funding and playing resources enjoyed by their provincial rivals, they continue to endure a basement existence in the Magners League and annual evictions from the Challenge Cup.
Coach Michael Bradley has battled manfully in adverse circumstances for the last seven years but is moving on at the end of the season with assistant coach, former Ireland out-half Eric Elwood, the early favourite to take over. And Elwood could immediately benefit from the goal Bradley has been striving for since 2003 - Heineken Cup qualification. Connacht are top of their Challenge Cup pool after four victories from four outings, including back-to-back wins over Worcester in December, but, given their sparse resources, winning Europe's second-tier tournament is a big ask and their most likely route into the Heineken Cup competition is through the success of their Irish rivals.
Munster were not at their best during the first section of the season but produced one of their greatest European displays in December when humiliating French champions Perpignan in their Stade Aime Giral fortress and are now justifying their Heineken Cup favourites tag. Champions Leinster surprisingly lost their opening pool game at home to London Irish but responded superbly with comprehensive wins over Brive and in their back-to-back meetings with the Scarlets.
And, if Munster win their third or Leinster their second European crown in Paris next May, Connacht are automatically included in next season's Heineken Cup draw. Alternatively, if an Irish province, most likely Ulster, drop down to the Challenge Cup as one of the three runners-up failing to qualify for the Heineken Cup quarter-finals and then goes on to win the secondary competition, Ireland will have four Heineken Cup entrants for 2010-11. It is only when Connacht gain access to the top table that progress can be made.
They do have some quality players on their books at present. Hooker Sean Cronin was a fringe player at Munster before making the switch out west and he has prospered under Bradley. A dynamic ball-carrier, strong scrummager and accurate lineout thrower, the burly 23-year-old is highly rated by Ireland coach Declan Kidney and made his international debut during the November series. Similarly, out-half Ian Keatley and fullback/winger Fionn Carr were peripheral performers in Leinster who have prospered in Connacht with Keatley capped on Ireland's summer tour to North America when their front-line players were on Lions duty.
Followers of the Guinness Premiership will remember Johnny O'Connor's performances on the openside flank for Wasps a few seasons ago. The Galway native won the last of his 12 caps in 2006 and has had his share of injury problems since returning to Connacht in 2007 but is still only 29 and, at full tilt, can match the best No 7s on the circuit. Similarly, scrum-half Frank Murphy is remembered for his exploits at Leicester Tigers and the 28-year-old is a savvy operator at the base of the scrum and a good foil for Keatley.
Gavin Duffy may be struggling to break into Ireland's stellar backline at present but is an international quality player with 10 caps to his name and possesses the versatility to play centre and wing as well as his regular starting position of fullback. Then there is John Muldoon, the uncompromising back-row and captain from hurling heartland Portumna in Co Galway. Like Keatley, Muldoon was capped on the summer tour and is an inspirational figure for Connacht, wholly committed to the province and a player who has resisted lucrative offers to move.
Those players represent a decent playing foundation by any standards but the nature of Connacht's existence means a heavy reliance on journeymen pros from the southern hemisphere. However, if Heineken Cup entry is achieved, income opportunities will inevitably increase and there will be added incentive for ambitious Irish talent to travel west and gain big-game exposure - a scenario that can only strengthen Ireland's, already healthy, international situation.
Fail to qualify and the gap between the have and the have-nots in Irish rugby is only likely to widen. There is a lot at stake then for Connacht over the next five months or - to put it another way - to hell or to the Heineken Cup.