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'No surprises, no excuses' as Swift plots addition to Heineken Cup highlight reel

Michael Swift feels his new second row partner Craig Clarke can make a long-term difference at the Sportsground.

Image: ©INPHO/Ryan Byrne

THE OVERLY-DRAMATIC FANFARE was pumped in loud and clanging while the history of the endangered Heineken Cup tournament was projected onto a big screen screen in a Dublin city office.

Johann Muller could look up at the familiar face of his director of rugby early on in the super-cut, he could pick out himself late on.

Peter O’Mahony would glance at the middle third knowing that Munster were indelibly linked with the European Cup.

And Leo Cullen could see his own smiling face, hoisting cup after cup.

Michael Swift and Connacht, on the other hand, were represented by a victory in a pool match – the win over Harlequins that ended a long losing streak.

He shouldn’t have been, but you could understand why the veteran lock looked a little uneasy as he sat on stage in the company of the island’s other three provincial captains.

Even the presence of Swift’s ilk at the launch of Europe’s top club competition is a factor that has apparently annoyed English and French parties enough to try and tear the competition asunder. If the Heineken Cup does survive to see another year, it’s difficult to see a resolution in which Connacht will be allowed to take their seat by any other means than straight qualification.

“I suppose some people have said Connacht don’t want that,” Swift says before turning bullish, “but I look at it as a positive, to be honest.

“If it is merit-based, then so be it. It means we have to perform better and if it starts meaning pushing people to perform better week in, week out, then so be it. If we do qualify, then it makes it even sweeter.”

The now-iconic January win over ‘Quins aside, the western province’s second tilt at Europe’s top competition tasted much better than their first. However, after a difficult opening to the season under new coach Pat Lam, there is a hint of fear around Connacht that the province may have made a backward step. Fortunately there’s plenty of time left to add two in the right direction.

“Pat’s obviously come in during the summer and really brought a sense of team spirit and camaraderie in the squad,” says the man who makes up 33% of the Connacht captaincy.

“He’s a completely different coach to Eric [Elwood]. He’s really brought a ball philosophy and likes to play the conditions – in Galway, we can get four seasons in one day.

“He’s all about the ball; skills, skill-set, individual work-ons and if it’s on, it’s on. So hopefully supporters will start to see what kind of brand of rugby Pat’s trying to install in Connacht players.”

As brands go, Saracens’ doesn’t exactly inspire thoughts of open contests with line-breaks and carries of more than five metres. The new coach has pointed out already this season that his pack were disadvantaged by sheer size and weight; Saracens are in another weight division altogether. The Premiership side appear to have the exact tools required to do a job on Connacht.

Hoping to lend a hand to redress that balance and giving the hosts a platform from which to cause another shock will be Swift’s partner in the engine room, Craig Clarke.

The Super Rugby champion has spent the opening rounds of the Pro12 getting his body up to the speed of a whole new rugby season cycle. If his presence has not been felt on the scoreboard yet, within the dressing room, it’s a different story. Clarke’s natural leadership is already apparent with all in the squad, even the man with over 200 league appearances to his name.

“He’s six foot seven, so he does have an influence, you know when he’s standing over your shoulder,” Swift says with a smile.

‘We belong’

“He’s brought a hardness and Kiwi attitude to winning – he has a winning mentality from a winning background playing with the Chiefs. That goes a long way to installing confidence in the younger players. When they look at Craig and hear what he has to say; he’s been there and done that and he’s got the trophy.

“It’s important to get these kind of guys into Connacht, to basically bring everyone together and say: We belong here. We can win here.”

It will take time for that belief to settle in the squad, but the western province won’t wait patiently. They want to keep the memorable moments coming, away from home as well as in front of the nerve-shattering roars in Galway.

“You always look to improve and last year we felt we had a chance. We beat Biarritz at home but we let it go over there. So, we’re always looking to win our home games and improve.

“It’s our third year in the competition so we want to start forging our own images, our own video clips of Connacht history. It’s our third season in it now and there’s no surprise. We want to shine, and there’s no excuses this year.”

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Sean Farrell

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