Connacht Rugby is certainly undergoing a huge transformation as it looks to compete at the highest level of European rugby. 2011/12 was the first chapter in the Connacht rugby success story, as progression both on and off the pitch gathered huge momentum.
Heineken Cup boosted the profile both nationally but also on a global scale, and victory over a highly fancied Harlequins outfit in January was just rewards for a debut season that saw too many narrow defeats. The home match against Toulouse in particular saw a record breaking crowd of 9,120 at the Sportsground. A highest ever league finish of 8th was achieved, during which Connacht achieved three victories in a row for the first time in nearly ten years. New players were blooded through the squad, the Connacht Juniors and U-20’s won the Interpros’, and the Irish squad currently in New Zealand has four Connacht representatives in props Ronan Loughney and Brett Wilkinson, second-row Mike McCarthy and Connacht captain and full-back Gavin Duffy.
Season ticket sales last season increased from 800 to over 3,000, while the average home gate attendance was up 105% from the previous year. The Clan Terrace was built giving the home team more vocal support, and the Clan Bar was a welcome addition for fans to meet before and after matches. Media interest naturally spiked, with a 45% increase in coverage.
The players are already back in pre-season training, and the aim to build on last year’s momentum. Eric Elwood has the luxury of a settled squad for the first time, as all the marquee players have committed to Connacht, while he has bolstered the squad with high calibre signings. The acquisition of Scottish out-half Dan Parks demonstrates the ambition of the province, and will bring a wealth of experience to the out-half position. Prop Nathan White and flanker Willie Faloon have signed from Leinster and Ulster respectively, and both featured in this seasons Heineken Cup Final. Hooker Jason-Harris Wright has been recruited from Bristol, and is a product of the famed Leinster academy, and featured in the last years Heineken Cup victory over Northampton. Utility back Brian Murphy signed a one year contract after an impressive season with Galwegians where he won Connacht player of the season.
Tom Sears has been appointed CEO, and has worked with the RFU, as well as New Zealand Cricket Board, and most recently, the Kenyan Cricket Board. A new marketing and commercial structure has been created, headed by Alex Saul. Saul previously held the role of Group Sponsorship and Branding Manager with the Welsh Rugby Union, as well as the ERC. The Professional Games Board, in its first season with Connacht has worked closely with the marketing and commercial team to build the brand immeasurably over the past season. Developments are continuing to improve the facilities at the Sportsground, and other projects are in place to improve the match day experience for the supporters.
With more than two months to go before the start of the new campaign, Saul is particularly pleased that season ticket sales have already surpassed 2011. “We are delighted with the early rate of sales for 2012/13 season ticket packages” he admitted. We took the bold decision of freezing the majority of prices and offering a series of loyalty and advocate discounts earlier in the year before we knew our Heineken Cup fate.
The Heineken Cup draw has paired Connacht against Harlequins again, Amlin Challenge winners Biarritz, and the newly formed Italian outfit Zebre. There will be great anticipation to the second season in Europe’s premier competition, and Director of Rugby Eric Elwood is expecting a challenging group. “We have played Harlequins quite a lot over the last three or four years, and I don’t think anyone will forget the atmosphere in the Sportsground back in January when we hosted them” he said after last week’s draw in Dublin. “It’s nice to get a different team like Biarritz, and they are a strong traditional French team. Zebre are an unknown outfit, so that will make it interesting”. Connacht will compete in the British & Irish Cup for the first time, with the Connacht Eagles enabling fringe player’s competitive action, and is seen as a vital step in the development of rugby for the province.
The culture is changing at the Sportsground, in keeping with the ambitions of everyone associated with the team. No longer content to be the fourth team in Ireland, and gallant losers, Connacht are closing the gap nationally, in the RaboDirect PRO 12 and now aiming to compete in the Heineken Cup. The youth development program is as good as any in the country, and a more professional approach commercially has helped to foster a closer relationship between the general public and their rugby team.