Galway city is turning green this weekend in growing support of Connacht Rugby’s biggest fixture in its professional era on Saturday. And with the Galway Sportsground sold out for another week, Connacht CEO Willie Ruane has revealed the province’s hopes to either renovate and extend the College Road facility or build a new stadium elsewhere in the city.
“The stadium is something we have as our utmost priority,” Ruane said yesterday at the launch of Connacht Rugby’s Vision and Strategy for the next four years.
“We are clear we will pretty quickly reach a ceiling where we are currently at - whether the capacity or the experience. We have done a lot of work in the last 12 months in what we believe a stadium should look like.”
Ruane says the ideal scenario would be to remain at the Sportsground, but if not, it is looking at a city site, believed to be in co-operation with the Galway City Council which could also be a municipal facility, similar to most French rugby grounds. The new port development is an unlikely option due to the cost of prime land, while the Swamp has also been ruled out.
Meantime Connacht Rugby remains in discussions with leaseholders, the Irish Greyhound Board, of a “shared vision” for the Sportsground, which is owned by the Galway Agricultural and Sports Trust.
“The Sportsground is our home, but it has to work for both parties. It would be our preference, and we will try to exhaust that, but it is our duty to look at other options and we are doing that very seriously.” Ruane says the stadium would accommodate 10,000 “as a starting point”.
“It is scaleable so on a given day we have the potential to extend that. The last thing we want to build is something too big, or end up in something you can outgrow too quickly,” he says. “We need to make sure we foolproof it so we are not building a colosseum that would lack atmosphere. Trying to replicate the atmosphere of the Sportsground is a challenge.”
Ruane believes Connacht could have sold upwards of 10,000 tickets for Saturday’s fixture, but ruled out moving this fixture to another venue, saying “We are in it to win it, home advantage means everything”. However he has not ruled out moving elsewhere for fixtures next season should the need arise.
“We are pretty maxed out in capacity in terms of additional terracing we can bring in, there is not an awful lot more we can do, so next season we are looking at alternatives and options, it’s not an easy decision. We know we could have moved the match this weekend, but it was the wrong thing to do. Supporters have waited a long time to have a semi-final of the Pro 12 in their own home ground, and moving it simply on the basis of commercial considerations would have been the wrong thing to do. “
“There are an awful lot of people in the province and beyond who wanted to be there this weekend, and there was similar demand for the Leinster, Munster, and Ulster matches, but it means we had to leave people outside the ground. We are delighted they are getting behind the team, delighted they are motivated to support the team, and they can be assured we are working incredibly hard to accommodate them in the future.”
The Ballina-born Ruane, who played for Galwegians and Connacht, says Connacht hopes to have a “clear” idea by the end of this summer on the stadium.
“A lot of stuff could happen very quickly or it could get stuck, but we want to know so we can execute the decision we make.
“First and foremost we need a project people will want to get behind. We believe there is significant support for Connacht Rugby. I think it is what we can do ourselves, what can our stakeholders do - whether the IRFU, the Government, and other private individuals who would like to get behind Connacht Rugby - and I believe all of those would be happy to play a part in getting Connacht Rugby to where it should be and can go. I firmly believe that.”
Ruane says Connacht Rugby’s vision for the next four years is more than just rugby.
“It is about the opportunity we have to represent everything that is great about Connacht as a people and a place.” However, on the field its targets are to remain in Champions Cup rugby from next season, to reach the knock-out stages of the Champions Cup on at least one occasion, to achieve an average of 30 per cent indigenous player representation, and to achieve an average of four players in Ireland match day squads by 2020.