Discussions over a new stadium development for Connacht are "very live right now"

Chief executive Willie Ruane says better facilities for fans are crucial as the club builds on last year's success

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Connacht players Niyi Adeolokun, Jake Heenan and Denis Buckley were at the Sportsground this week to launch the new range. Photo (c) Inpho Photography

Coming off the back of the province's break-through season "consistency" is the key word for Connacht chief executive, Willie Ruane.

"Consistency is the biggest thing - constantly competing at the highest level. It’s unrealistic for any club to turn around and say, ‘We’re going to win the Pro 12 every single season,’ but you have to be competitive every season and arriving into the business end of the season still in with a shout," he told Newstalk.com.

Connacht chief executive Willie Ruane

He says that the club has reached a point where it requires new grounds to match Pat Lam and the players' ambitions:

"What we do need is better facilities for our fans, people need to be able to get a seat, everyone need to be able to get some form of cover," the former-fullback states - adding that old and new fans will only feel that they are getting "value" paying lump-sums for season tickets if the team is competitive and the stadium is up to scratch.

"The Sports Ground is a tough place to be at certain times of the year," he continues, adding that there are a number of options of the table for Connacht to realise its stated ambition of building a 10,000 seat arena on a site that can facilitate further expansion if necessary.

"This has been our home for a long time - you’d love to try to achieve something here in the Sportsground if that’s doable - but it has to be the right type of development," the ex-banker replied when asked if remaining at Galway's Sportsground is the province's preferred development.

"We’ve done a lot of work in terms of examining all the different options. There’s one or two that are viable that we’re not really in a position to talk about publicly at the moment, but we are looking very closely at them," he continues, adding that this is something that the club is working "very hard on" and discussions surrounding this issue are "very live right now."

Given the wild winds and rain which often hails down on Connacht's home fixtures - some commentators have suggested that Galway would be an ideal location for a roofed or indoor stadium like Forsyth-Barr stadium in New Zealand, where Ireland defeated Italy in the 2011 Rugby World Cup.

While Mr Ruane says it would be "amazing" and great step forward for such a facility to be built in Ireland, he adds that it might be a project that is out of reach for the time being - due to the high cost of such a development:

"It’s something that you’d love [to do] but whether it’s a realistic option at this stage is something that I think would be questionable."

He believes that there is a lot of support for the development of a new stadium from the IRFU, the State, fans and private individuals who want to help the province.

The club is currently establishing which stadium plan to pursue and costing the project.

Momentum

They say success breeds success and Connacht has already seen an upswing in season ticket purchases and an increase in interest from businesses who want to be associated with the organisation.

"It’s more that you have people proactively contacting us, rather than us having to go out and knock on a lot of doors. That’s not to say that we’re not still knocking on doors, we do that of course, but we have a lot more interest in the assets that we have available," Willie concludes.

 

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It is also investing in areas like social media to reach more fans, "More engaged fans means more people who want to come along and watch the team and attend matches and be associated with the team," Mr Ruane adds.

This has included steps like the hiring of a full-time "fan engagement manager" who "will be responsible for driving ticket sales through fan engagement across all digital and physical channels," according to the job listing.

Darker days

The club's very existence was put under serious threat in the not-so-distance past - when financial problems led to the IRFU to consider disbanding the team.

This sparked public anger and a protest march on the IRFU's head office - but looking back Ruane says that the episode helped the province:

“It was a difficult time for everyone involved - not just Connacht, and the players, and the fans - but for the IRFU too. There was a soul-searching at the time. The one thing that I would say is that it resulted in everyone having a closer look at how we operated, both the IRFU and Connacht.

"Out of that came a lot of good. Once you have to have that real deep-down look at how you operate and how you can get better. You have no choice but to get better."

Highlights

When asked what his standout moment from the team's 2015/16 odyssey was, he says that walking off the team bus to an "amphitheater" of Connacht fans singing The Fields of Athenry ahead of the Pro 12 final was a personal highlight, as were the rest of the homecoming celebrations.

 

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"It wasn’t really just about rugby, there was an opportunity for everyone from Connacht to stick their chest out and to feel very proud of where they are from. To be able to provide that bit of inspiration - that’s what makes it all worthwhile," he reflects, weeks before the team begins its 2016/17 campaign.

The club's "Grassroots to Green Shirts" programme is at the core of all of its future plans, it hopes to develop talents  through grassroots investment, to raise a new generation to wear the green of Connacht and to constantly contribute to Irish national teams.