Des Daly takes a comprehensive look at AIB League Division Three side Connemara who face their Galway rivals Corinthians this weekend.
The fifth day of the fifth month in 2001 will long be remembered by the 300 people from Clifden who travelled to Ennis, Co. Clare to watch Connemara beat Highfield 14-13 in a play-off and so qualify for the 2001/02 AIB League.
As the top junior club in Connacht for a good number of seasons, Connemara had previously qualified for the end of season Junior clubs' Interprovincial Round Robin in 1996/97 and 1998/99 but lost out on promotion on both occasions.
Now, in 2001, they had finished as runners-up to Clonakilty in the Round Robin and only Highfield, second last finishers in Division Three that season, lay between them and AIB League status.
Mission accomplished at the third time of asking, Connemara became the ninth Connacht club - four had since departed - to take their place within domestic rugby's senior ranks. They now became the most westerly senior rugby club in Europe and have maintained that distinction to the present day.
Six seasons down the road, Connemara are still alive and kicking in AIB League Division Three. Since they entered the senior ranks they have finished in fourth, eighth, eleventh, sixth and thirteenth positions in the Division Three table.
In the past four seasons, Connemara have reached two Connacht Senior Cup finals against Buccaneers, beating them 21-10 in 2003 and losing to them in the 2006 equivalent. Last term, the club's Under-20s beat Buccaneers in the Connacht U-20 Cup final.
Their first season in the AIB League was a remarkable one. Finishing fourth in the Division Three league series, the club qualified for the semi-finals and travelled the long road to County Wicklow to face Greystones.
A 23-14 victory, in which player-coach Henry O'Toole and his brother Pat scored all the visitors' points, ensured a big day out for Connemara in showpiece final at Lansdowne Road.
Their opponents in the final were Dublin University, the oldest continuously active rugby club on the planet. On the morning of the big game, the squad visited the home of Irish rugby to get their bearings, an important exercise as only two of the players had even been to the venue before.
A few hours later, the men from the west played some great open rugby and scored four tries to beat a startled Trinity side 25-21. Connemara had just been crowned Division Three champions at the end of their debut senior season.
It was ironic, of course, that the two clubs who they beat in the play-offs were both promoted to Division Two due to the fact that they had finished in the top two slots in the league table.
The Connemara club was founded in 1974 as the Franciscan College RFC, Clifden, and became Connemara RFC when affiliated to the IRFU in 1984. The membership owe a big debt to the Franciscan Brothers who brought the rugby game to the town of Clifden, and put a field for rugby at the disposal of their former pupils.
The club is sometimes known as the Connemara Blacks, a name recognised by all anglers as one of the most successful trout and salmon flies in popular use over the past 50 years.
...Fergal Wood, a cousin of former Ireland captain Keith, has been a regular in the Connemara front row over the years...
As the Monastery Field on the Ballyconneely Road outside Clifden only accomodates two changing rooms and a showering area, home for the club is upstairs in EJ Kings pub and restaurant at the Square in Clifden. Here the committee and selection meetings are held and visiting teams and officials, usually booked into the Alcock and Brown Hotel across the street, are wined and dined with apres match hospitality.
The club owe much to Terry Sweeney, proprietor of Kings and other hotels and restaurants around the country, for his generous sponsorship and support. The club also acknowledges the contributions made by rugby folk who have built holiday homes in the area. Many unsolicited cheques have been tendered by these benefactors to ensure the club's continued well-being in the league.
Clifden, the capital of Connemara, is 50 miles west of Galway city and 183 miles west of Dublin. Clubs visiting from the east coast have another 100 miles to travel once they reach Ballinasloe on the eastern side of County Galway.
In the AIB League since October 2001, there have been 14 visits from Leinster clubs (Connemara have won seven of those), 13 visits from Ulster clubs (with eight wins for Connemara), nine visits from Munster clubs (Connemara have won six of those) and five from Connacht clubs (with four wins and a draw for the hosts).
All but two of the current crop of Connemara players are local and are products of Clifden Community School. The players are mostly employed in the construction industry and in local tourism. A few, like the 42-year-old prop Gerry King, are into coastal fish farming while number 8 Bernard Keaney, captain for the first four seasons in the league, earns his living as the head green keeper at Ballyconneely Golf Club.
The Keoghs are one of the local families strongly associated with the club. Dad Liam was recently club President for two seasons, while sons Kevin, last season's captain, Alan, who has tallied up 15 AIB League tries, and David all regularly line out for the senior side.
This season Connemara have played four Ulster teams on the opening weekends and won three of these encounters - all three having been played at Monastery Field.
This Saturday the club travels to Galway city to face Corinthians at Cloonacauneen, four miles out on the Tuam Road. The two clubs are the only current survivors from Connacht in the lower divisions of the league which once included Westport/Mayo, UCG, Sligo, Creggs and Ballina.
The connections between Connemara and Corinthians are strong. Busker Browns, the watering hole on Galway used by Corinthians, is owned by the aforementioned John Sweeney of Clifden.
Henry O'Toole, who scored 159 points for Connemara in their inaugural AIB League campaign, starred for many seasons at full-back for Corinthians in a previous existence. While Connemara, this season, are being helped out in the coaching area by Tommy Conneely and Jimmy Duffy, two former Corinthians players and current Regional Development Officers with the Connacht Branch.