It is the biggest day in Connacht’s history. After 15 seasons of Amlin Cup rugby, during which time the ultimate goal has always been to play Heineken Cup rugby, the day has finally arrived.
This evening Connacht take their place among Europe’s elite. They make their debut in this season’s Heineken Cup against Harlequins at the Stoop (8pm ) in what is the competition’s opening match, live on television.
It is what many anticipate will be a David v Goliath challenge - Harlequins, current English premiership leaders, unbeaten all season; Toulouse, the aristocrats of European rugby with four titles; and Gloucester, currently fourth in the premiership with a proud 138 years of tradition.
Yet those involved in the province are looking forward to this long-cherished goal - mixing it with the big boys in Europe and showcasing what Connacht has to offer.
Coach Eric Elwood insists there is no fear, but excitement.
“A lot of us have been here a long time and this is the Holy Grail. It’s where we want to be and we want to take advantage of it, so there is no fear,” Elwood says.
Having been involved for all 15 years of Connacht’s history in European competition - some 99 games - Elwood has total faith in his small squad of players that will be stretched to the limit in this six-match pool campaign.
“I believe in what we are doing. We have guys here who are just terrific - yes we have bad days and good days - but I really believe in what we are doing. We are all trying to push the boat - challenge each other. Staff, players, the Connacht Branch, and the Professional Games Board are all challenging each other because I am fed up with mediocrity and days like this are great days for people like me and for other long servants of Connacht.
“As a player I would love to have played in the Heineken Cup, but I suppose the next best thing is coaching, rubbing shoulders with the best teams, the best coaches, pitting your wits against the best. And that is where we want to be, testing ourselves against the best.”
It’s expected several players who were suffering injuries, including Michael Swift, Henry Fa’afili, Eoin Griffin, and Rodney Ah You, will be fully fit to play. As a result Elwood is expected to keep faith with those players who have become regulars on the starting XV. Up front Brett Wilkinson, Adrian Flavin, Ah You, Swift, Mike McCarthy, John Muldoon, Ray Ofisa, and George Naoupu are expected to line out against a Harlequins pack that has dominated all before them in the premiership. In the backs Gavin Duffy is expected to be restored to fullback after a stint in the centre due to injuries, with Fetu Vainikolo and Tiernan O’Halloran on the wings. The big question will be at halfback where Frank Murphy, also recovered from a groin injury, has more experience over Paul O’Donohoe, who last week combined well with Miah Nikora. Nikora, who only made his first start of the season last weekend, will be vying with Niall O’Connor for the outhalf position - the latter possessing a bigger boot than the New Zealander.
Whatever the team selection, they will be up against it. The two sides are familiar with each other, having met several times in the Amlin Cup - won last year by Harlequins, a club headed by Elwood’s long-time friend and former playing partner at Lansdowne and Ireland, Conor O’Shea. Alongside O’Shea is the wily John Kingston, former coach to Elwood and assistant Dan McFarland at Galwegians, who leaves no stone unturned in his preparations. And this year Harlequins have taken another step upwards, celebrating their 10th straight win this season against Bath last weekend - the only unbeaten team in the competition at present.
“Harlequins were the talk of the Heineken Cup launch. They are unbeaten, having had a great win away to Bath. They are playing fantastic rugby - are big and strong in most areas in the park - and it couldn’t be any harder, playing the only undefeated team in Europe.”
Much will be expected of Connacht’s core of experienced players, particularly up front where they suffered last weekend against Ulster, who claimed the interprovincial honours with a strong second half to win by 22 - 3.
“The big players will have to step up to the plate in these big matches,” says Elwood. “But everyone has a role, everyone has to understand what is expected of them because the fine details do matter.”
While players like Duffy, Muldoon, Flavin, McCarthy, and Ofisa have a proven identity with the province, there are newcomers who have little experience of the Connacht’s perennial struggle over the last 15 years.
“That is one reason why we went to the Aran Islands last year - to get players to understand what Connacht is. It has been explained in detail and even this week we spoke of it. This is the biggest game in Connacht’s history ever because it’s our first game in Europe. Yes, we have played the All Blacks, Australia, and we have Toulouse next week, but this is the biggest game, live on TV, the opening game of the Heineken Cup weekend.
“It is that big and people are buying into it. It is the last frontier here, and that siege mentality, and that’s why we went to the Aran Islands. That is what Connacht is about - it’s tough, it’s hard, and it’s rugged, but it can be fun and when you do win games, those are the days you live for.”
However, he says, Connacht cannot get carried away.
“We have to be prepared; we have to put in a good shift to stay with these big teams - a bit of reality check, too, is that this is going to be tough.”