For the next few weeks across all of our channels, we will be looking back to a special moment in time. This year marks 25 years since an Irish Province beat a French and English team away from home in professional European competition. That team was Connacht Rugby.
‘We called it ‘psycho’, on the basis that you had to be crazy to do it.”
The immortal words of Warren Gatland, as written in ‘Front Up Rise Up,’ Gerry Thornley’s spellbinding book chronicling Connacht’s path to becoming Pro12 champions for the first time in 2016. Gatland, who was Director of Rugby at Connacht in 1997, was talking about utilizing innovative tactics (or questionable, depending on your outlook) to give his team the edge.
Connacht were transitioning into the professional era, and still didn’t have any full-time professionals at the club. Hence the need for thinking about ambitious approach to the game, including the use of a 13-man lineout and, if needed, a 13-man scrum. “We scored off it [against Australia in a friendly win the season before] and they were all moaning, complaining it was illegal,” remembered Gatland. ‘But the referee said, “No, that’s fine.”
Connacht’s season probably won’t be remembered for these innovative tactics, but rather for a sensational European Challenge Cup run that began with the club smashing Northampton 43-13 at home on a sunny Tuesday evening. This was followed by a controversial defeat away to Nice, which meant a must-win away game to Bordeaux-Begles was on the cards.
No Irish team had ever come away victorious over a French team away from home before in professional competition, but that is exactly what Connacht did, beating Bordeaux 9-15 on Saturday, September 20th, 1997. This lit Connacht on fire in Europe then, as they stormed to a revenge win over Nice at home and beat Bordeaux-Begles at home too for good measure.
These victories set up a pool decider against Northampton then at their home ground, Franklin’s Gardens. Northampton had rested key players in their trip to the West of Ireland, but wouldn’t be repeating the same mistake again, fielding their three Lions players for the crucial clash alongside a host of other stars. However, all this rugby firepower couldn’t compete against the grit of a Connacht team who were determined to keep their European streak alive.
Connacht’s first try, from John Maher, was off of the innovative 13-man lineout. This was followed by tries from Junior Charlie in his first season at the club, and then a beautiful passage of play featuring Mick Finlay and Willie Ruane allowed Nigel Carolan to put the ball down over the line next. A try for Johnny Bell prompted a backs-to-the-wall defence from Connacht, but they persisted, holding on to win 15-20.
Connacht were through to the quarter-finals.
Despite a brave performance in an away quarter-final against Agen, Connacht couldn’t repeat the magic, finding the French side’s power game too difficult to compete with. Agen went on to the final that year, but for Connacht, the European dream was over. ‘Front Up Rise Up’ described the bittersweet scene after the final whistle, where the loss was difficult to swallow, but there was the knowledge history had been made:
“Back in the away dressing room afterwards, the Connacht players linked in a circle for one last time and Belted out ‘Red Is The Rose’. ‘Let them hear it,’ beseeched Eric Elwood. ‘Open the door.’”
Keep an eye out on our website and our social media channels over the weeks to come for more insights on an historic season for Connacht Rugby, including a VERY special surprise later on in November.