New Connacht CEO Willie Ruane’s career might be steeped in making tough financial decisions necessary for his new role, but he is distinctly nostalgic when recalling his playing time with the province.
Like many players who soldiered through some tough times, it is the good times that remain foremost in Ruane’s memory - none more so than 1997 when Connacht stunned their European opponents, knocked out pool favourites Northampton, and qualified for the Challenge Cup quarter-finals.
The hairs on the back of the neck still stand up. “Sitting in the team room before playing Northampton in Franklin’s Gardens, it just came out of nowhere ... very quietly at first .. a rousing rendition of ‘Red is the Rose’.
Everyone involved will remember - that was as good as you can get.”
Connacht lost the quarter-final to Agen in France, coach Warren Gatland headed to Lansdowne Road to take over the Ireland side, Eric Elwood continued his illustrious rugby career with the province, and Ruane enjoyed another two years with Galwegians and Connacht before opting for a career in banking with long-time Connacht sponsor Bank of Ireland.
“ It might seem bizarre now, but I was 25 at the time. Would I have looked to have played longer? Yes, looking back now. To see where it is now, it is so professional - I did not envisage that when I stopped playing.”
Moving into asset management, treasury, lending, and ultimately with the Ulster Bank in business restructuring - some 15 years later it is that financial expertise which Ruane brings to the job.
Now married to Elaine, with three boys, Billy (7 ), Tom (5 ) and Robert (4 ) and continuing to live in home town Ballina, the soon-to-be 41-years-old knows if Connacht’s current crop of players are to taste similar success and more, Champions Cup rugby is the goal and player development from the grassroots is the key.
“At the professional level this year we want to qualify for the Champions Cup and we are not afraid to say it.
Beyond that let’s see, but that is the immediate goal and we will only do that if we get the structures in place and the proper systems,” he says.
Refreshingly enthusiastic about his new role Ruane describes his appointment as “magic”.
“Not many people will get the opportunity to come back and perform a role that I have been given for their home club. It’s rare enough and I am very fortunate. This is where I am from and this is where I played, so it means a lot to me. I am proud and excited as well.”
Coming into the role after the unexpected departure of Tom Sears, who returned to England, the Mayo man has some advantages - not least his ability to view the province as an insider.
“Connacht has its own unique challenges and strengths, to understand what they are is very helpful, not only that, but I come from a part of Connacht that is more in the regions. Connacht is not just about Galway city, but five counties, and I bring a perspective of someone who is coming from a different part of the province, and that is crucial. The province must be viewed in the whole sense, not just Galway - so while I have a Connacht perspective, it’s the wider Connacht perspective.
“Of course there are differences profiles between the other provinces and ourselves, but sometimes we can focus too much on that which is an inhibitor, so let’s be ambitious, grounded in realism, but we need to challenge ourselves in what we can achieve rather than looking at areas where there might be inhibitors, look at areas where we think there is potential growth, and I believe there is right across all areas.”
That of course includes the supporter base which has steadily risen over the last few years, but not enough to ensure capacity crowds for more than a handful of fixtures.
“ We need to improve our gates and ensure people identify more closely with us. Our facilities we need to work on, and we have to look to the wider support. Connacht has a huge diaspora and there is a huge amount of goodwill - so we need something to help them get behind us - something they can identify with and say ‘that is a reflection of everything that is good about where I am from’, even if living on the other side of the world.”
Sponsorship can be dependent on success, which Ruane says “may take a bit of time”, but with the immediate target of qualifying for the Champions Cup, there are opportunities for corporate sponsorship - “Just this week a large company contacted us that tells us there is room to grow and that we are doing something right.
“Yes, we want as many supporters through the gate as possible, but we want people in Connacht, whether they turn up to the Sportsground or not, to be able to identify with Connacht because it represents them.
It represents them on an international stage and there are not too many opportunities to show off the province.”
Ruane has been struck by the ambition of people in the branch. “You might think ambition might wane over the years, but it doesn't. If you listen to John Muldoon speak about what he wants to achieve, or Tim Allnutt - those guys really want to achieve and they are the ones who are leading. When we had Eric [Elwood] he was everything that was great about Connacht, and for Pat Lam to come in was difficult, but he gets what the community is about and what he brings to people is infectious. The players are great, they really are, they get the importance of it. I want everyone to have that ambition and I think most people have that hunger and ambition.”
Time to grow up
Crucial to success is the development of the domestic player base, and focus sessions are currently being undertaken with clubs in the province.
“We want to continue to grow the indigenous player group and Nigel Carolan is doing as good a job as any academy in Ireland. The academy is not just about rugby, it’s much more rounded and holistic. For the guys that do make it, brilliant, but for the guys who don't, they come out set up to move into the next stage of their career and be thankful for what has been done.”
Financial constraints and debts have always been par for the course, but Ruane insists the province has a sound funding structure.
“The IRFU has played a significant part in continuing and increasing support, but we know the IRFU expects a return, it needs to see Connacht players coming onto the Irish side. We are doing that, but we also have to grow up and it’s up to us from here.”
“Every decision I make on a daily basis has a financial aspect to it, and it needs to be sustainable and valuable, that is key. Other decisions will have a qualitative measure- so it means I get both sides of my brain used on a daily basis.
“I am a people’s person - that is my style. I would much prefer rather than tell someone to do something, that people can understand and come to their own conclusion. To develop that understanding is like a rugby teamyou have shape and structures, and everyone understands the structure and when a gap arises, everyone knows how to plug the gap.”
Willie Ruane last played at the Sportsground in 2000. What does he see now?
“A vastly improved pitch -no one dare walk on it - the facilities around it have improved, can they be better? Yes, it’s something we are working on and developing a plan.
“In five years I would like to have delivered success on the pitch, created an environment where success can be achieved - the play-offs of the Pro 12, the Champions Cup and knock-out rounds, but from a wider perspective I want every child, boy or girl, who wants to achieve playing in Connacht and whether it’s to play with a club, province, Ireland or the Lions - achieving it right here in their own community.”