Their “dignified rally,” as one of their leaders called it, culminated in the handing in of a letter and a petition at 62 Lansdowne Rd. They were invited in for tea, but declined. It might have been a little crowded.
Where one went, they all went, for there has surely never been such a show of agitated if good-humored solidarity outside the gates of the IRFU headquarters. Under a clear blue sky, at one point they stretched the length of Upper Baggot Street. Car horns tooted in support, with one driver waving a Lansdowne scarf.
Banners fluttered on behalf of Garbally College, Sligo RFC, Connacht Fans, Ballinasloe, Portumna Community School, Blackrock, a Gaillimh flag with the GAA crest, the Connemara All Blacks and Ginger Supports Connacht. The now Wales-based Ginger McLoughlin was joined by other former internationals Robbie McGrath, Mick Quinn, Phil O’Callaghan and Noel Mannion, and senator Jim Glennon.
A placard from Clifden asked “Underage Connemara RFC — Future Asylum Seekers?”, while a leaflet doing the rounds “cordially” invited the IRFU to a “Connacht Rugby Club on any Saturday to observe the future of rugby in Ireland. No presents please, just yours will do. RSVP.”
Their numbers were swelled by the majority of the current Connacht squad, out to try to save their careers and their livelihoods, and by Alec Blayney, a past Connacht president now in his mid-1980s, who also walked the walk.
The petition was handed in by two of the elected Friends of Connacht representatives, Danno Heaslip and Tommy Conlon, which showed that the union have even succeeded in uniting Galwegians and Buccaneers, as well as three mini-rugby players from Galwegians: twins Daniel and Cassie Deegan, and Michael Fallon.
Philip Browne, the chief executive of the IRFU, along with the union’s honorary treasurer, John Lyons, bravely accepted the petition at the front door — surely more than Browne’s “job spec” had outlined.
“The first thing it shows is the passion in Irish sport, which is such a fundamental part of our achievements on the pitch,” said Browne. “Secondly, it shows that there is genuine concern out there, and we’ve got to take that on board.”
More concern than the IRFU had bargained for perhaps.
The thousands looking on waved red cards before breaking into song, the “Fields of Athenry” competing with Galway Bay FM’s recently penned Ireland’s Call featuring the “three proud provinces of Ireland.” Although some, hopefully, clung to four.
The letter called on the IRFU “to discontinue the process they are currently engaged in, which is designed to lead to the expulsion of Connacht from professional provincial rugby,” adding: “This process is divisive, damaging to the future of the game and could threaten the security of the institutions of the Irish Rugby Football Union.”
“We didn’t say too much,” admitted Heaslip after emerging from the IRFU headquarters. “It’s being said outside on the road. The Friends of Connacht only started a week ago. I’m absolutely astonished at the turnout.”
Pending further developments, the group have set up their own website, friendsofconnachtrugby.com, and have an email address at firstname.lastname@example.org.