Advertisement
Monday 6 February 2023 Dublin: 1°C
James Crombie/INPHO Michael Swift applauds the Connacht fans after his final game in 2015.
# rugby legends
‘Horrible, derogatory, disrespectful’ - the sledging Connacht had to endure
Michael Swift reflects on his 15-year career with Connacht and predicts a big season for Andy Friend’s side.

A SHOUT ROSE from the Clan Stand and at once defined the moment. Michael Swift was moving slowly through the masses, repeatedly stopped as he tried to make his way to the commentary booth, introduced to this one and that, a bit like that scene in Goodfellas when Henry, the character played by Ray Liotta, walked through a crowded restaurant, stopping to say hello to Frankie Carbone, Mo Black’s brother – Fat Andy, Freddie No Nose, Pete the Killer, Nicky Eyes and Jimmy Two Times.

Only here, the characters were considerably less threatening. “Michael, this is my cousin, Bridie.” “Michael, would you mind if my son, Fiachra, got a photo?”

A steward pushed back a barrier to allow Swift pass through. “Nice to see you again,” Swift said.

“Welcome back, Mike.”

“Yeah, it’s good to be home,” Swift said.

Home.

For his childhood years, that was Hammersmith, London. Now, his address is in Terenure but on this day, September 2018, his instinct was to call a small, packed terrace on the western edge of Europe, his homeplace. It sounded weird at the time, somewhat unnatural. “Let me explain,” he says.

**

He starts by taking us back in time. He won’t tell us the year or the specific opponent. The only clue he gives you is that it was a player or players from a rival Irish province.

At the time, Connacht were going nowhere in terms of progress and Michael Swift was going nowhere in terms of his address. “Offers were on the table every now and then,” he says. “You’d consider them, certainly but you just didn’t want to jump.”

In a way this makes no sense, how this London-Irishman whose parents came from Wexford and Dun Laoghaire, could become so ingrained in a club’s culture. Yet as he spoke on Thursday morning about his 15-year journey with Connacht, it quickly became clear the road was a strangely, thrilling chaos, sometimes lonely, often not. “The thing you hated hearing was opposition teams arrive in Galway and say how they had to overcome the wind and the rain before they overcame us,” he says.

Yet he remembers days and nights when the weather turned raw and when he’d be waiting for a line-out and he’d see fans he knew huddling together in their raincoats, doing their best to ignore the elements, before they’d unleash a scream. C’mon Connacht. “In the early days, you felt like you knew absolutely every fan we had,” he says, remembering one match against Beziers when only 300 people turned up. “You could almost figure out who (among the support) was shouting what.”

a-view-as-rain-sweeps-across-the-sportsground Billy Stickland / INPHO A rainy night in Galway as Connacht prepare for battle. Billy Stickland / INPHO / INPHO

What the fans had to say was considerably kinder than certain opponents. When the Celtic League kicked off with a 10-team, 18-game season in 2004/05, Connacht finished last, the same position they occupied for the following five years. “Look you need the skin of a rhino to be a professional rugby player,” Swift says. “And years ago, there was an underlying lack of respect to us.

michael-swift James Crombie / INPHO Conversations at maul-time were rarely deep and meaningful. James Crombie / INPHO / INPHO

“I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t horrible, the comments you’d get during a game, opponents telling you that you didn’t belong at this level, that you should become an AIL team. It was derogatory.  

“You’d be livid with it but at the same time, that’s pro sport. You have to get on with it, take those comments with you, use them the best way you can to drive you on, make you better.”

Way back then in the mid-noughties, Leinster, Munster and Ulster chased silverware. The one thing Connacht wanted to win was respect. Eventually they’d get there, Pat Lam telling them in 2013 that the aim was to become the best side in Ireland inside five years. They got there in three.

Better than that, they got something else. The snide comments ceased. The results changed. The PRO12 title in 2016 was the high-point but the years since – a decent Champions Cup campaign in 16/17; a record win over Leinster in ’18; a place in the 2018/19 PRO14 play-offs; a second successive win/loss ratio last season – have all left an impression. “I remember the day after the lads won (the PRO12 final) at Murrayfield,” says Swift. “John Muldoon was talking about how he’d hoped for respect for so long. ‘We have that now,’ he said that day. And we’ve never lost it. People definitely look at Connacht differently now to way back then, when there were some dark, dark days.”

**

No prizes for guessing which days were darkest and bleakest.  We’re talking about January 2003 and we are on the march. Lansdowne Road is the destination. The threat of closing Connacht down is on the IRFU agenda.

When he thinks what Philip Browne had to say last week, his grim prediction about professional rugby’s future being on the line if fans remain absent from stadiums for a prolonged period; he remembers his own fears and insecurities.

At that stage, he was three years in Galway, arriving the same summer as Dan McFarland, now the Ulster coach, and Tim Allnutt, who went on to become Connacht manager. Richmond, Swift’s first club, had gone into administration. Leeds Tykes was a stopgap, Connacht the club he’d go on to play 268 times for. But in January 2003 it looked like his next game for the province could be his last as the threat of closure loomed large.

“It was harrowing. I mean you are talking about players livelihoods. Dan (McFarland) was there. Look, I’d played with Dan at Richmond, so I knew the type of person he was, an incredible leader, a fighter. He’d become our player liason officer and he spoke so passionately about what we were up against. “We’re not done here,” he said at one point. “We’ll fight this.”

They won the scrap. But bruises came at the end of the season. “The most upsetting part came later that year; there was a meeting and a coach asked the players who were not staying on for the following season to leave the room. It was only when you see a quarter of them go out, one by one, that it hits you.

“We lost some really important players. I remember chatting to Jerry Flannery about this. We’d a really promising team then. We could have done things. It’s a shame we were never given the chance.”

**

The wind came scudding in from the Atlantic, scattering its drizzle across the windscreen. Michael Swift put the wipers on, wondering how a once-bright day had so suddenly turned grey. The further he drove, the wilder it got, the landscape that is, not the weather.

He’d only been in Connacht a few weeks at this stage and all this time he’d heard about Connemara. “You gotta go, Mike.”

Finally, he did. A city boy, raised in London, used to concrete and the Tube, urban noises. Now he was here, alone, staring at the ocean on one side and the heather on the other. “I hated people looking down on us,” he says. “When they’d go on about the weather any time they played us at the Sportsground …… I mean, it’s a unique place, Connacht.

“People sneering about us, about our ground, about the rain, look, it’s who we are. That first time I went into Connemara, seeing mile after mile of rugged, untouched landscape. It has a harrowing and raw beauty to it.”

It’s a stretch to say a Londoner’s appreciation of the west of Ireland’s terrain had anything to do with a game of rugby. Yet it isn’t an exaggeration to say it got into his soul of this London Irishman who played representative rugby for England’s Under 16s. At one stage or another, he had offers from English, French and rival Irish clubs. Yet for 15 years, he stayed. Others didn’t.

Exclusive Six
Nations Analysis

Get Murray Kinsella’s exclusive analysis of Ireland’s Six Nations campaign this spring

Become a Member

“We had good teams, so many good players. Annoyingly, some saw faraway fields being greener. But some of us stayed. That Connacht spirit, you can’t manufacture that. It comes from years of experience, years of being there.

“There comes a time when you just say, ‘this is us, this is who we are’. We fight. We’re determined to battle for what we are. I’m proud I kept fighting for 15 years, proud I never left. That means a lot to me.”

**

He’s going back there today, punditry duty taking him west. For a while after hanging up the boots he found it hard to show his face, that first year after retirement being so brutally raw. Emotionally big, hard second rows aren’t meant to show a soft side. But when you have been in a place 15 years, when you’ve stared around dressing rooms on days like this, the opening day of the season, you develop a sense of attachment.

Then, with a flick of a switch, it’s gone. Your name is removed from the players WhatsApp group, your routine is no longer determined by a coach telling you when to train and when to rest.

It was a seismic change in a 37-year-old’s life but it wasn’t the only thing that changed. Throughout his Connacht career, Swift, McFarland and Muldoon had chatted about what they had to do to get better. “Commitment and energy only got you so far,” he’d say. They needed to add grace to grunt.

Under Pat Lam, they did. The team got on a roll in the season after Swift retired and he was thrilled. But he was also wary of being seen as a hanger-on.

So he deliberately kept his distance Eventually, after much persuasion, he hopped in the car and travelled down to Thomond Park for that first win in Limerick in 29 years. Later in the season he watched the PRO12 final on TV with family, driving down to Galway the next day, hooking up with some old buddies, finding a corner in a quiet pub, deliberately staying out of the way.

“I like to think I played some small part in the success,” Swift says. John Muldoon acknowledged as much afterwards in his post-match interview; Alan Quinlan and Donncha O’Callaghan wrote about him in their respective newspaper columns.

That was when it dawned on him. That yearning for respect had finally been found. Connacht had it – and still do.

“The job Pat (Lam) did will never be forgotten,” says Swift, “but when I see Connacht now, under Andy Friend, there’s just so much to admire in terms of the way he operates and how the team goes about their business.

“They have every reason to be ambitious, to target the quarter-finals in both the PRO14 and Champions Cup, this season. The club has made good signings; young players have emerged through the ranks. We aren’t just a team that fights for every inch. That attribute is still there, okay – but there is more to team now, more ambition.

“And most importantly teams look at Connacht differently. That has been the biggest success story, the fact we’re no longer the limb that Irish rugby thought it could do without.”

* Michael Swift is co-founder of FRANKMAN a company that specialises in men’s grooming. See www.frankmangrooming.com

Bernard Jackman, Murray Kinsella and Gavan Casey discuss the provinces’ 2020/21 starts, the South African-infused Pro16, and the schools-versus-clubs dynamic in Ireland


The42 Rugby Weekly / SoundCloud

Your Voice
Readers Comments
8
This is YOUR comments community. Stay civil, stay constructive, stay on topic. Please familiarise yourself with our comments policy here before taking part.
Leave a Comment

    Leave a commentcancel