I first became aware of Connacht rugby back in the amateur days of the early seventies, when in fairness the social side of the game was its main attraction and when our top international players, (or at least some of them), were as famous for their ability to drink pints as they were for their prowess on the field and one of our best-ever back row forwards would literally take to the pitch with a cigarette dangling from his tobacco-stained mouth.
At the time Connacht was the hind-tit of Irish rugby, a totally unwanted province (has anything changed?), and the three other provinces carried all the selection power for the international side, which meant that it was almost impossible for a Connacht player to get an international cap and as Ulster had to have a certain number of players on the Irish team to keep the Northern people happy, it was no wonder that inter-provincial success for the western province was something to be savoured and appreciated.
Of course some Connacht players were so good that eventually they just had to be picked on the Irish team, men like Ray McLoughlin, Mick Molloy and Eamon McGuire – who just couldn’t be ignored – and they were all heroes to a young sports-mad lad growing up in the village of Creggs, (that was me in case you’re lost).
Anyway, remarkably in a lot of ways, out of our little village, which at the time, had no rugby connection at all, two of our young lads, Jack the Higher (Cunningham) and the Rasher, my brother Declan, were to represent Connacht at senior level and almost forty years ago, I stood along with a couple of hundred other hardy souls on the sidelines in Donnybrook as the two lads took on the might of a Leinster team powered by a number of Irish international players (and even Lions). I would love to tell you our boys inspired Connacht to a famous victory but sadly, although it was a very close-run thing, the Leinster lads eventually prevailed. I don’t think Jack or the Rasher ever played on the senior team together after that, but later on when Creggs was up and running, they played many times for the Junior side.
All of this came into my head on Friday evening last when I watched what I believe to have been the most heroic performance ever put in by a Connacht side, as they went down 18 points to 10 in Kingspan Park in Belfast, to a decidedly lucky Ulster team. I won’t say anything about the referee, except to say that at one stage my son Mark, who was watching the game in Dublin, and myself exchanged texts at the exact same time and we both said exactly the same thing about the ref – two words that most certainly can’t be reproduced in this, or any other, family paper.
The bravery, commitment, passion and skill exhibited by the western team was extraordinary and even if they left without a bonus point, the final ten minutes or so, when they had only 13 men, was like looking at a re-run of a war movie – men putting their bodies on the line without any thought of personal safety and as someone who occasionally questions the heart of some of the imported players, I have to eat my words and say that everyone who wore the green jersey on Friday night earned the right to be an honourary Connacht man for all time.
There is of course a Creggs connection with this team as Denis Buckley, who must soon get a call-up by Joe Schmidt, was with us as an underage player and we are rightly proud of his achievements and all I can say is on Friday night, they restored my faith in the professional game. I wonder if the hierarchy could live with Connacht winning the league?
Anyway there are three matches left and they will all be momentous occasions. I can’t wait!
Back to the Rasher and Jack the Higher and in a junior game against, funny enough, Ulster as well, as the match came to a close and with Ulster leading by a point or two, the Rasher found himself bearing down on the opponents’ line – a match-winning try was in his sights and although he was about to be tackled, all he had to do was pass to the free man on his right and a Connacht victory was assured. Sadly the free man was wearing Galwegians socks and the Rasher couldn’t bear the thought of an arch-enemy scoring the winning try so he looked for Jack the Higher, who was almost killed when he got the ball. Ulster won the match, the Rasher never played for Connacht again, Jack the Higher eventually recovered from his injuries, but never played with the Rasher again, but thankfully, (only joking) they are back talking again.
Hyde Park is now the most famous football pitch in the country and on every programme on every radio station this Monday morning, the conversation is all about the last-minute calling off of the game with the Dubs and its transfer to Carrick-on-Shannon.
Now it does appear as if the decision was not a Roscommon County Board one, but rather a Croke Park one, so the criticism of the County Board was a bit unfair, but regardless of who made the final call, as the rain fell steadily all through Saturday evening and night, there was no one in the county who believed that the game could go ahead in the Hyde.
I was in Mikeen’s and everyone I spoke to was certain that the pitch would be unplayable. Surely the call could have been made on Saturday night or maybe at 7 o’clock Sunday morning. Had it been looked at then, the Dublin supporters (or at least those who travelled on Sunday), could have gone straight to Carrick and there wouldn’t have been as big a mess.
However, despite not having a pitch of their own, the Rossies had a brilliant league campaign and are now looking forward to a trip to Croke Park next Sunday to have another crack at the men from the Kingdom. It should be a cracker and who knows, they may also have another go at the Dubs in the League Final. I won’t be in Croker on Sunday next, as our rugby lads, after a great victory in Tuam yesterday (Sunday), play Connemara in a play-off to secure a place in the top tier of Connacht Junior rugby. It would be a great achievement to get back there after an absence of a few years, so please God, wherever it is, I’ll be there and if you can come along and give them a push over the line, so to speak, please do.
I had a dream…I was playing for Roscommon
By Frank Brandon
When I went to bed, it was late last night
And I had myself a dream
That I was playing football
For Roscommon’s county team
I had never got the nod before,
but it didn’t get me down
And now ‘twas even better
For the Dubs would be in town.
They are All-Ireland Champions
With a host of household names
And I marvelled at their brilliance
As they were winning all their games.
The majestic Brogan brothers
And Stephen Cluxton too
Diarmuid and Mac Dara
And all the other boys in blue
But still I wasn’t frightened
As a young child of the dark
For the Dubs are not so mighty
When they have to leave Croke Park.
And I knew that I was ready
Didn’t doubt myself a bit
I had always done the training
And was feeling really fit.
You could sense the town was buzzing
As it used to in the boom
But Kevin and Fergal brought us straight
into the dressing room
And there we stretched and twisted
And all of us got rubs
No team could be more ready
To go out and face the Dubs.
And then the vital moment came
The removal of all doubt
In almost total silence
Kevin read the fifteen out
I didn’t have too long to wait
Almost straight away I knew
That yes I would be starting
I’d be wearing number two.
The teams walked out onto the field
And I was feeling grand
We paraded all around the pitch
Behind the Castlerea Brass Band.
The referee threw in the ball
T’was just gone two o clock
I was marking Bernard Brogan
Was he in for a shock.
The first ball when it came our way
I hit him with my knee
The ref gave me a yellow card
And Brogan scored the free.
The next one came in long and high
Although t’was cold and wet
He caught it clean above my head
And stuck it in the net.
By now the pressures coming on
And I was fairly cross
I said it’s time for me to show
Young Brogan whose the boss
The next and last one came flying in
And skidded off the ground
And I slid down to pick it up
But tragically I drowned.
And then I met St. Peter
He said what brings you here
When I last saw you this evening
You were in your football gear.
I said to him it’s all your fault
Yourself and God’s to blame
You knew the Hyde was flooding
You should not have let it rain.
He said hang on a minute
And maybe you are right
I think we’re going to send you back
You should be home tonight
But if you get a second chance
Please God I loudly cried
You must promise me you’ll never again
Play football in the Hyde.
At that very moment I woke up
I was safe at home in bed
I really hadn’t drowned at all
And no I wasn’t dead.
I turned on the local radio,
I heard Willie’s famous voice
The match was played in Carrick
And the Dubs won by a point!
Finally for this week, there was a very enjoyable and well-supported Table Quiz in Mikeen’s on Friday night in aid of Anthony Rowan’s charity trip to Tanzania.
As quizmaster, ably abetted by the legend that is Tom Connelly, there was a whiff of suspicion about the fact that I won three prizes in the raffle, but I can assure you it was all legal and above board and the bottles of wine will be put to good use!
Till next week, bye for now