Connacht Rugby is already swinging into gear to cope with an expected increase in supporters after the province drew European blue-bloods Toulouse in Tuesday’s Heineken Cup draw.
Covering for the east terrace at the Galway Sportsground is expected to start within the next two weeks to ensure the College Road venue is more conducive to Heineken Cup rugby fans who will welcome four-times European champions Toulouse later this year. Connacht, in tier four of the 24 teams, has been grouped with the current French champions Toulouse, Amlin Cup winners Harlequins, and Gloucester, who finished third in the English premiership.
Connacht branch CEO Gerry Kelly says Connacht is now expecting sell-out crowds at the Sportsground for all Heineken Cup fixtures and the three Magners League interprovincials, and as a result the branch is moving fast to make the necessary changes.
“The task is now to make the ground presentatable and ready before the start of the season,” he says. “ Having drawn three teams that are not in the Magners League is a big bonus for us and as a result we must prepare the ground for sell-out crowds on at least six occasions.”
The new covering for the existing terrace will be a permanent fixture which can be enhanced as further phases to the development are undertaken in the following years. In addition, a temporary stand will be added to the existing covered structure in time for the start of the newly-sponsored RaboDirect PRO12 Magners League. Extra seating behind both goals will also be utilised for the Heineken Cup and interprovincial fixtures.
Twice as many season tickets have already been snapped up since Leinster’s victory over Northampton in the Heineken Cup final paved the way for Connacht’s first entry in the elite competition.
“Commercially it is a fantastic draw,” says Kelly, “and, on the field, every team wants to pitch themselves against the best. This season we will have the last four Heineken Cup winners at the Sportsground.
“It is a huge opportunity for us to attract new fans to the game and a challenge to keep them coming in the seasons ahead.”
Toulouse represents the thoroughbreds of European rugby. The most successful club in the history of the tournament, their 108-16 victory over Ebbw Vale in 1998 still represents the biggest win, most points in a match, the most tries in a match, and the most conversions during the 15 years history of the competition. Toulouse winger Vincent Clerc is the all-time top try scorer in the Heineken Cup with 32.
Coach Eric Elwood has been given the draw he wanted, but he is now anxiously awaiting for the fixture list which will be released in July.
“Yes, it’s the draw we dreamed about. No matter who we were playing, it was always going to be difficult, so to have Toulouse, the best team in the competition, come to the Sportsground - we could not have asked for anything better.
“Now we will await the draw to see who we are facing in the back-to-back fixtures. That will present a challenge for us and our resources, particularly as it comes just before two interprovincial matches in the Magners League.”
Harlequins and Connacht have met on several occasions in the Amlin Cup, and Gloucester hosted Connacht in the pre-season two years ago, but Elwood says both are tough opponents who will bring their exciting brand and supporters to Galway.
“We are just happy we have not drawn a Magners League side - that could have detracted from the impact of us playing in the Heineken Cup for the first time. There is a great buzz in the province which is what playing Heineken Cup rugby is all about.”
Elwood insists the Magners League remains the top priority, and hopes the Heineken Cup will provide his squad with a competitive edge and excitement that will be transferred to the league.
“Hopefully the players will be coming back ready to train hard which is always a difficult period. Everyone will want to play in the Heineken Cup matches which will add an extra edge to training and competition for places.”
Training resumes on June 22, but before then Elwood must find a replacement for backs coach Brian Melrose and a new centre.
Melrose, who had signed a two-years contract to remain at the Sportsground, informed Connacht from Australia that he was not returning. Instead he has taken up a post with London Irish as its new elite player performance manager. It has left Elwood struggling to find a replacement before the start of the league.
“It is not ideal to be left in this position, and I was not happy, but we will take our time to ensure we have the right person. We have already had a couple of applicants, and we will have someone in place before our pre-season matches.”
Connacht is also hoping to complete the signing of a new centre this week after All Black Benson Stanley opted to remain in Auckland. It is the last remaining position outstanding in Elwood’s 2011/12 squad.
HEINEKEN CUP DRAW
POOL ONE: Munster, Northampton Saints, Scarlets, Castres Olympique
POOL TWO: Cardiff Blues, London Irish, Edinburgh, Racing Metro 92
POOL THREE: Leinster, Bath Rugby, Glasgow Warriors, Montpellier
POOL FOUR: Leicester, Clermont Auvergne, Ulster, Aironi Rugby
POOL FIVE: Biarritz Olympique, Ospreys, Saracens, Benetton Treviso
POOL SIX: Toulouse, Harlequins, Gloucester Rugby, Connacht Rugby