Often maligned, rather unfairly, as a dog track overlooking a cemetery, the Galway Sportsground can now be the province’s “shining light”. Hardened fans love it just as it is, and former captain John Muldoon refused to contemplate moving big games elsewhere, but in many ways it is past its sell-by date, particularly since the game went professional.
Now Connacht Rugby can stay in its home of 90 years. With the agreement of co-tenants, the Irish Greyhound Board, and with the blessing of the IRFU, Connacht has unveiled plans to redevelop the Sportsground after a lengthy and “rigorous” process.
Much has changed since those days when Connacht supporters marched on Dublin headquarters to save their team, and CEO Willie Ruane, who had already retired as a player to forge a career in banking, says the new development is a tribute to those who had to soldier on.
"I am here only her five years, and it’s brilliant to make an announcement like this, but by god there were people soldiering before me. I think of Gerry Kelly [former CEO] who was here when it was tough, and he soldiered through it to get us to this point, so we are making an announcement on the back of what those people did, and we are very conscious of that.
"I describe it as becoming an overnight success after 20 years, but really it is all about continuing to work and work, make improvements, and improve how we do things, and that gives confidence to other people how we do things here, whether it be the IRFU, sponsors, potential sponsors. Once they see you are doing your work well and are professional and ambitious, then they genuinely get the significance of what Connacht can be.
"I don't say this lightly, we genuinely think we can make a contribution that goes well beyond rugby. We think we can be a shining light of ambition for the west of Ireland. I have said it a number of times, we take pride in representing what is great about the Connacht people, and the place, and a development like this gives us that opportunity to send out a statement of the ambition of the whole region.
“We believe there is genuine cross-country support for a proper regional development, and this can be a demonstration of that commitment, and we hope it will get the support it does."
The project has been some years in the making, involving feasibility studies on three city sites, numerous visits to UK stadia, negotiations with co-tenants and politicians, and listening to the public. Thus, after looking at every green plot in the city, and narrowing the possibilities to three, finally the current home of Connacht Rugby won out.
It did not come as a huge surprise, and there were “close contenders”, says Willie Ruane, but it came back to the Sportsground. "It was necessary to go through the process, to step back and ask what was really needed and what was available." In an effort to deliver a "stadium fit for purpose" for Connacht rugby, players, fans, administrators, the community, and the province - Connacht not only engaged a group of professionals to oversee the search, but the people of Connacht.
"We went out and asked people and we received 4,000 responses. We went to businesses, from SMEs to large scale multinationals, and asked what their hospitality needs would be if they were to bring customers to an event. It all fed into the overall picture of what the stadium would feel and look like which ultimately led to the current design brief."
That design brief, implemented by a London firm of architects which has worked with the IRFU, centres on a new 6,500 capacity stand, and along with extensions to the Greyhound stand, the final capacity is 12,000, which can be enlarged when necessary with temporary terracing at both ends.
"We knew pretty quickly we needed to be close to the city centre, and there are not many sites of this size. We had conversations about sites on the outer edges, and while they work in certain sports and in certain locations, particularly in the UK, the infrastructure is not here just yet," Ruane says.
Add in ease of access for Connacht supporters from Mayo, Leitrim and Sligo, and Roscommon, the proximity to the bus and trains stations, the selection of nearby eateries and pubs, the ambience of walking up College Road - and the selection of the Sportsground was really a no brainer.
In addition to accommodating both rugby and greyhound racing (the decision also involved the support of the Irish Greyhound Board ), was the ability to incorporate everything needed for rugby on the one site.
“One of the things we are really conscious of here, and it works for us is that we are all on the one site. We are all in the one building, and that connection among pro staff, academy, grassroots staff, the commercial team, is that sense we are one big team. It really is a part of who we are, and that is something that is not in a lot of other organisations.
“We have had many coaching staff and professional staff who have come and gone over the years who point to the fact that it is a real strong point for us, and we did not want to lose that, so figuring out how to do do that when you are building a development of this scale was an issue.”
The one facility lost is the training pitch, previously used by OLBC, but with a synthetic surface on the main pitch “whether it is hybrid or 4G”, and a half indoor pitch synthetic pitch, similar to the one in Scarlets, the bases have been covered.
“We visited a lot of stadiums and in each one they would all have something they would change, and so you are finding out the reasons why, and trying to learn from those. People were incredibly open and sharing with the knowledge they had acquired, but the Scarlets one in particular was an impressive facility, particularly in terms of west of Ireland, because it is not just for the Pro team, but for age grade squads, women's team, and it opens up a whole new world for us.”
The greyhounds will stay, thus the track, but Ruane believes it is now not an issue. "The Greyhound Board really reacted in a positive way. I can't say enough of them. We sat down and had a conversation with them and shared our vision for what the Sportsground would be, how it could work for both parties, listened to some of their views and concerns, and then we were able to agree pretty quickly once we got down to nuts and bolts.
"They are very keen we remain here, and obviously they are keen they remain here, and once we were able to get that to the forefront of any conversations, we were quickly able to work it through. It took a few meetings to figure out deals, but they came to the table positively, in the same way we did."
With a change in the Irish Greyhound Board's CEO and a new board after the process had started, the conversation was re-started. "Our thoughts on some of the different options had evolved which made it a slightly different conversation, so over the last number of months we reopened the conversation, and they were very positive. In reality the track is not an issue at all. When you are standing in the main stand or the Clan Stand and the ground is hopping, you don't know the track is there, and you never feel that far removed from the pitch. It is really simply the case that we put on a number of events, they put on a number of events, and how do you work to coordinate that. Once everyone was engaged in that process in a positive way, we were able to work through that pretty quickly."
The redevelopment will be financed by a combination of public and private funding - "no different to Thomond Park, Pairc Ui Chaoimh, Croke Park, or Kingspan".
"They all required State support if the projects were to be realised, and we are no different. We will be looking for that State support, we've already engaged as part of that process - with the Department up to ministerial level. We have engaged with all of the regional politicians, and I mean all of them, and they have engaged in a very supportive way. They understand the significance of the project."
Funding for the €30 million project is expected to come via a new Government large scale sports infrastructure fund to be announced soon - the ratio of public to private yet to be determined.
"The reality is for the last 10 years there has been no money available for this type of development, so it didn't matter even if we were ready five years ago. Government funding is very significant because you can talk all you like, but if the funding is not available, then it ain't going to happen, so that was a signficant factor.
"That money is available now, and we will be making our application over the next couple of months. It will open hopefully in the next few weeks. We are not sure what the window is, but we will be ready to go, and we think we have a very compelling proposition, we really do."
Private stand naming has become a method of funding, and Ruane says there will be a few interested parties.
"You would love to have that west of ireland connection without a doubut, you can see that in some of the partnerships we have. We have a west of Ireland feel, but it is not exlusive and neither it should be. There is a connection across the whole of Ireland and s long as it is a good fit for Connacht, we are open to those conversations."
The architects attended the Leinster match to "soak up the atmosphere and to see how the ground flows". "They have tried to get under the skin of what the needs were from a Connacht perspective, and they have been on the road with us too. There were a number of stands we looked at that may be similar to what we are developing here, but they would have all been seating, and we were conscious we wanted that mix in terms of hospitality features, what we can do match day, and what are the options on non match days because the reality is there will be more non-match days, and would the development be a sustainable development to bring Connacht into the future.
From the survey, a "significant" majority wanted to watch the match from the sides. "The ends were not something that was really motivating people to come and watch a match, so that was built into the design - and we do have restrictions around the ends anyway because you want to be able to watch the dog racing around the track, and that is a key factor. Then trying to find a mix between terrace and seating was key, because we do have a really good feel in the ground, and it is all terracing, and you could go so far that you lose that feeling."
Planning application is expected to be made with the Galway City Council in the next few weeks, and once Connacht receives word of the funding application and its window for submission, the application will be made. "We are opening up a process with the local residents so they can view all the plans. They can visit us here, ask questions of the relevant people and give feedback so we can submit our planning within the next couple of weeks. Depending on the outcome of the planning, we wouldn't be hanging about. If we have the wind in our back, we'd like to kick off pretty soon."
The first job will be to resurface the pitch. "We will still play here, all the way through, but it will affect the capacity, so there will be a retracted capacity during that period. But we still want to play here and train here, so one of the first things we want to do is improve the surface, put a new pitch in and that would allow us to train on that main pitch."
The new offices and high performance facility will then be built to cater for all the staff and players before the current offices are knocked to make way for the main stand. The last piece in the construction will be extending the terraces of the Greyhound stand
A strategic facility working group was set up when Connacht launched its vision and strategy with one of the main planks to provide facilities to match its ambition. That working group is chaired by Mick Turley, and includes Connacht's head of operations, Karl Boyle, a number of executive branch office staff, and some volunteers.
So what has changed since the IRFU rescinded its decision to axe the province? "Its support initially came with strings attached, and that was understandable and it was reasonable because Connacht needed to show a return on a significant investment, and I'd like to think we have done that.
"If you then take Joe Schmidt [Ireland head coach] or David Nucifora [IRFU performance director], and he has been a brilliant addition to Irish Rugby. He gets performance at the highest level, and he understands the need for four provinces to develop players all over Ireland, and I think that has been key. Philip Browne [IRFU CEO] has been brillliant, not just in his own guidance for me as a CEO, but also in terms of support and commitment to the province. They just want things to be done well, and if we want to do things well, then their support is wholesome.They expect things to be done properly.
"We have those expectations of ourselves and they are fully aligned with the IRFU and I'd like to think we are delivering it. The number of players capped in the last three years is significant - if the players perform, Joe Schmidt is prepared to pick you, and so it is up to us to allow our players to deliver on those performances. We will have a really really impressive facility that we can all be incredibly proud of. When you are so stuck in the work, the excitement is hard to see, but when you get this opportunity to share it, I am excited by it."