Will 2010 be the year for Connacht Rugby?

By Thomas Crean

Rugby union

Irish rugby union is arguably at its highest-ever point in the professional era.

The national side are reigning grand slam champions and have recently claimed the scalp of world champions South Africa. A marker has been laid down for the 2011 World Cup.

At provincial level, Leinster captured the coveted Heineken Cup while Munster are current Magners League champions.

Munster of course have won the Heineken Cup twice in recent years. Ulster also lifted the trophy once in 1999, but have performed impressively this term.

But outside of Ireland, even the staunchest of rugby followers would struggle to name the fourth professional side in the country, not that it is the fault of the team itself.

They compete annually in the Magners League and Amlin Challenge Cup, although they have generally struggled to realistically compete for honours in these competitions.

They have been constantly ridiculed by the majority of Irish fans as being a burden on the IRFU and for being consistently uncompetitive, but this could finally be the year they get their deserved break.

Connacht Rugby is located in the Connacht region; one of the most peripheral regions — both physically and economically — of western Europe.

The side is designated as a ‘development team’ by the IRFU, who actually tried to close them down altogether to save costs several years back.

This essentially means that it receives half the budget of the three other provinces and recruits largely youth players from the rest of Ireland, in part due to the low playing population of its area.

Due to funding inequalities, any local talent that does emerge is eventually recruited by the other provinces or teams abroad.

This development status has been a constant barrier to any kind of success in the professional age, but there is much optimism that this could be the year for Connacht to reach their ultimate goal: Heineken Cup qualification.

This goal can be achieved through three scenarios this season: if they win the Amlin Challenge Cup; if Munster or Leinster win the Challenge Cup or Heineken Cup, or if they finish as one of top three Irish finishers in the Magners League.

For the first time in recent memory, a side of genuine quality has been assembled by their outgoing coach Michael Bradley, who has performed near miracles over the last number of years, keeping in mind his lowly budget and the difficulty in attracting playing staff.

Johnny O’Connor and Gavin Duffy are the only vaguely familiar faces, having played Guinness Premiership rugby while gaining a respectable amount of international caps. The likes of Ian Keatley and Sean Cronin have been more recent additions while Fionn Carr has been flying in with the tries this season.

They have been unfortunate in the league thus far, putting in some impressive performances but failing to capitalise on possession. Unfortunately they still sit in their reserved spot at the foot of the table.

However, no one can doubt that Challenge Cup honours has been their focus this season.

They currently top Pool 2 with a two-point lead over Montpellier following back-to-back wins over the Worcester Warriors, and will look to seal qualification to the quarter finals with a home victory over the French side this Friday.

The main worry is the lack of game time on the Irish side due to the recent cold snap, in comparison to Montpellier’s decent run of form, including a 15-0 defeat of Top 14 leaders Castres.

But the players will understand the importance of a victory for local, provincial and Irish rugby as a whole, and will be fired up for the challenge.

The most likely possibility would be to rely on a Leinster/Munster triumph to enter the Heineken Cup next season, but with Connacht excelling so far in their European competition, suggestions they cannot qualify on their own are far too premature.

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