A Munster or Leinster win in this year’s Heineken Cup Final would catapult Connacht into the competition for the first time. Heineken Cup qualification could do a lot to help build Connacht’s brand and fill the Sportsground for each home game. Unfortunately it’s hard to see them acquitting themselves respectably. Unless there’s an Italian side in their group they’ll be throttled week in, week out.
Once rugby went professional the Irish Rugby Football Union (IRFU) designated Connacht a “Development” team. Their current budget is 50 percent of that of the other provinces. They rely on recruiting promising under-21 and youth internationals that are not snapped up by the other teams. Every season they finish in the bottom spot of the Magners League and it’s hard to see this changing while they continue to operate under such a major constraint. The IRFU tried to shut them down as a professional entity in 2003 to cut costs but were forced into an embarrassing u-turn after being faced down by a major public protest. The current economic environment could give the IRFU the justification to have another go. If they’re honest with themselves they’ll admit that they’ve mismanaged Connacht. Would the New Zealand Rugby Union allow a team with “Development” status to source a third of its playing roster from abroad? Unlikely!
A major consequence of Connacht’s meager funding has been the development of a ramshackle, unbalanced squad with six or seven very good professionals, a number of promising younger players, and the rest middle of the road journeymen. This will continue until Connacht are allowed to seek alternative sources of funding that complements their existing allocation from the IRFU. The prospect of receiving a decent salary at Connacht may entice players operating on the fringes of the other provincial squads to take their chances and go west, as well as helping Connacht keep any promising players that they’ve developed. This would improve the balance of the squad and negate the need to sign mediocre players from overseas.
While this may be seen as impractical and unenforceable the always creative Australian Rugby Union (ARU) have put in place a system that allows their new Melbourne based Super 15 franchise ,The Rebels, do just that. The ARU are part funding The Rebels and allowing them to make up the shortfall through private sector funding. While such a set up is not without its problems, a rigorous oversight system would help to ensure that it is not open to abuse.
A Connacht side populated with young fringe players, unable to breakthrough at the other provinces, could be very competitive. Fergus McFadden played for the Irish Wolfhounds against Scotland “A” on February 5th. He doesn’t even make the bench for Leinster’s Heineken Cup matches. With Gordon D’Arcy and Brian O’ Driscoll set to continue to monopolize the Leinster midfield until the next World Cup there’s a danger that McFadden will spend his most important developmental years in the wilderness of Leinster’s reserves instead of proving himself at the coal face of regular competitive rugby. Two seasons ago Sean Cronin looked at what was ahead of him in the pecking order at Munster and opted to sign for Connacht. He has developed as a player and is now a genuine international option at hooker. Declan Kidney rewarded him with a place on the bench for Ireland’s Autumn internationals, and he made his debut against Fiji. Q.E.D.
If fringe players cannot be enticed to leave their provinces to join Connacht another system may facilitate their development. They could be farmed out on a one year loan to Connacht with both provinces sharing the wage bill. If the IRFU are serious about developing depth in key positions they could install a mandatory loan system that secures at least one promising player, not making the match day 22, from each province.
Like Melbourne is AFL territory with a small rugby community, Connacht is prime GAA territory and its rugby community is also small, containing only 7 percent of the national player base. Connacht are not going to fill the Sportsground on a consistent and long term basis with support from the rugby community alone. They need to entice the wider sporting community to come along too. They have a number of factors in their favour. They are the only professional sports team worth talking about in Galway. Rugby is a winter sport while GAA is played in the summer, and rugby matches are family occasions where it’s safe to bring the kids along without exposing them to boorish behaviour in the stands.
In Change By Design Tim Brown tells a story that illustrates the benefits of looking beyond the conventional community and involving outsiders. His company IDEO, a renowned design company, helped Shimano, a leading Japanese manufacturer of bicycle components develop a new product called the Coasting bike. It focused on the 90 percent of adults in the US who no longer cycled, instead of the fanatical 10 percent that Shimano usually serviced.
“The team began with a hunch that it should not focus on the high-end market. Instead, they fanned out to learn why 90 percent of American adults don’t ride bikes – despite the fact that 90 percent of them did as kids! Looking for new ways to think about the problem, they spent time with consumers from across the spectrum. They discovered that nearly everyone they met had happy memories of being a kid on a bike but many are deterred by cycling today – by the retail experience (including the intimidating, Lycra-clad athletes who serve as sales staff in most independent bit stores); by the bewildering complexity and excessive cost of the bikes, accessories, and specialized clothing; by the danger of cycling on road not designed for bicycles; and by the demands of maintaining a sophisticated machine that might be ridden only on weekends. They noted that everyone they talked to seemed to have a bike in the garage with a flat tire or a broken cable…The design team, inspired by the old Schwinn coaster bikes that everyone seemed to remember, came up with the concept of “coasting”. Coasting would entice lapsed bikers back into an activity that was simple, straightforward, healthy, and fun. Coasting bikes, built more for pleasure than for sport, would have no controls on the handlebars, no cables snaking along the frame, no nest of precision gears to be cleaned, adjusted, repaired, and replaced.”
Rugby is seen as elitist in every town in Ireland bar Limerick and many people don’t go to games or show up at clubs because of this. How are Connacht going to build a relationship with a wider community? What do these people look for when they go to a match? How can they design an experience at the Sportsground that doesn’t intimidate them, meets their needs, and genuinely moves them? Is there more to Connacht’s marketing strategy than updating the website and posting up the name of their next opponents on the billboard outside the Sportsground?
Connacht’s administrators should examine the work done by sports marketeer extraordinaire, the late Peter Deakin, at both the Bradford Bulls and Saracens. Deakin arrived at the Bradford Northern rugby league club in 1996 along with Australian coach Brian Smith. It was the advent of Super League and Bradford Northern had been underperforming for years both on and off the field. Deakin and Smith radically overhauled the club’s operations, re-established and improved links with the local community, and rebranded the club the Bradford Bulls. Smith restructured the player roster, installed new systems, and changed the colour of the club jersey from black to white, using the rationale that it was easier for players to see each other in white. Their efforts led to improved performance on the field, with the Bulls narrowly missing out on the inaugural Super League title in 1996, winning it in 1997, as well as significantly increasing average attendances to over 10,000 in 1996, and 15,000 in 1997. Deakin went on to repeat the trick of dramatically increasing crowd attendance at the Saracens rugby union club. His secret is captured by The Guardian’s Paul Fitzpatrick in Deakin’s obituary when he wrote,
“Before joining Bradford, Deakin had spent a number of years in America and, from Gridiron in particular, had come to understand the importance of making spectators feel valued and part of something special. He had that priceless ability to infuse people with the enthusiasm that he felt for the game.”
Brian Smith’s initial input was equally important. Smith, a former school teacher, had built a reputation as an innovative coach who was unafraid of making tough decisions, at the famous St George Dragons rugby league club in Sydney. Though he left the Bulls after a year, having received an offer to coach the Parramatta Eels, the foundations were in place for his assistant, Matt Elliot, to coach the Bulls to the Super League title in 1997. There are many similarities between Smith and former New South Wales Waratahs, Leinster, Scotland, and Ulster Coach, Matt Williams. Both are controversial “fixers” who seem to do their best work when tough decisions are needed on restructuring player rosters and installing new systems. It’s unfortunate for both that someone else usually seems to capitalize on their hard work, but such is the way for “fixers” in every walk of life. There is no denying Brian McLaughlin’s success at Ulster this season, but it’s hard not to feel that he’s dining out on the hard work done by Williams over the previous season and a half.
With the Connacht job currently up for grabs maybe someone like Matt Williams, or someone with his skill set, is required to challenge the status quo and do the kind of heavy lifting needed at a club clearly at a crossroads.