Heroes in green jerseys

The extraordinary heroics and the wonderful result in the Sportsground on Friday last unleashed joy unconfined and gave all Connacht rugby supporters a great lift. As Eric Elwood rightly said, “The players and the crowd got their just reward,” so we thought to honour the occasion by showing you the Connacht team that travelled to Ravenhill on November 19, 1958, and beat Ulster.

They are, back row, left to right: T Robertson, referee; Brian Siggins; Joe Tyrrell; Seamus McEvoy; Tony O’Sullivan; Mick Leahy; Johnny Dooley; Cormac Greally; and Tommy Lenihan, who was a touch judge. In front are Hubert O’Connor; Sean Calleary; Dermot Connolly, president of the Connacht branch; Brendan Guerin, captain; ’Locky’ Butler; Paddy Kilcommins; and Don Armstrong. In front are Dickie Roche and John Dillon.

Locky Butler was the only new cap on the team, Sean Calleary had an outstanding game, Cormac Greally scored a try, a penalty, and a conversion, and both Hubie O’Connor and Don Armstrong also scored tries. Jim Donaldson scored a try for Ulster which Dave Hewitt converted to leave the final score at Connacht 14, Ulster 5. This was Connacht’s third victory in a row at that venue, and two years later they made it four in a row.

Before the advent of professionalism in rugby, Connacht only ever had one representative on the selection panel for the Irish team, PJ Dwyer, so it is surprising how many of these players actually won Irish caps. It has often been said that two of them, Cormac Greally and Don Armstrong, should have been capped. It was commonly thought that Dickie Roche was the first Connacht man to play for Ireland, but in fact a man named Geoffrey Henebrey won six caps between 1906 and 1909.

The first ever interprovincial rugby game that Connacht played was against Leinster on December 8, 1885, the same day the Connacht branch was formed. There were occasional though irregular representative games played between the provinces up until the 1946/47 season, when the annual interprovincial championship was established. These games afforded good club players a national stage and a chance to compete for places on the Irish team. Each province played three games in a season, which meant one could only get three caps in a year unless there was a representative match. Connacht’s home games were played in the Sportsgound on a Thursday afternoon which was a half-day in Galway.

Ray McLoughlin had the longest career in a Connacht jersey, playing 33 times in an injury interrupted 17-year span. Mick Molloy played 33 times in a 16-year career, and Ciaran Fitzgerald also had a 16-season career.

In November 1940 Connacht played Leinster in Kilkenny and, for the first time, were not beaten by them. The score was 11 points each, with Connacht having played most of the game with 14 men. At the dinner afterwards, their captain Cyril Mahony was so excited at not losing that he referred several times in his speech to “Connacht’s great victory”. Finally, the Leinster full back leaned over to him and said in a loud whisper, “It was a draw sir, a moral victory perhaps, but a draw nevertheless.”

Much of our information today is contained in Ralph O’Gorman’s authoritative book Rugby in Connacht, some copies of which are still available.

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