The last time I travelled to Galway – or the irresistible Cathair na Gaillimhe to we fountain pen-poets – amateur rugby was still in its pomp and colour photography was still but a glint in Mr Kodak’s eye.
A tour with Pontypool had us stop in the capital of the West, taking in matches against Galwegians, Corinthians, and finally, the perennial underdogs of Irish rugby, Connacht.
Lingering memories abide of a congenial Fáilte, three tough matches and a knees-up that would have Sodom and Gomorrah blushing. I can still see Ciaran Fitzgerald holding Paul Crabtree by the legs as he attempted to imbibe a local cocktail of Guinness and Oysters via a wellington held by the always-willing Graham Price.
Three decades later, my liver feeling four decades older, I found myself on my way back to Cathair na Gaillimhe’s Sportsground. The pre-match entertainment was as I remembered it.
The Sportsground itself remains idiosyncratically charming. The greyhound track still rings the pitch, the terraces are still in place, the wind still blows a gale and the welcome is still as warm as ever. And, bless my Newport soul, they now have electric lighting.
I remember fondly carrying the pig’s bladder with the smell of the kerosene lamps in my nostrils, but this is the second decade of professionalism and, with professionalism, comes a change in standards.
Not always for the better, particularly in the case of rugby commentary, where jumped-up scarf salesmen and their ilk continue to redefine amateurism. But I digress. How unlike me.
Chasing pole position in the Rabo Prodirect League, Cúige Chonnacht’s interprovincial neighbours and Heineken Cup finalists, Ulster, rolled into picturesque Cathair na Gaillimhe. Sporting a near full-strength line-up including eight Ireland internationals, Ulster were heavy favourites for this match despite having not won here in three years. Cúige Chonnacht may have been underdogs but they can put the bite on you harder than Jiffy scrounging a fiver.
And so it proved, as, in the unusual and most welcome sight of warm spring sunshine, Cúige Chonnacht bounced to an early lead with No.8 and local favourite George Naoupu over in my corner. My liver might be blancmange, my try-scoring memory not yet so. Within ten minutes, Ulster had piled back with two tries before local tyros Eoin Griffin and Gavin Duffy put flying Tongan Fetu’u Vainikolo across the whitewash to bring Cúige Chonnacht level.
However, Ulster are chasing a second Celtic League title for a reason. Rory Best, hoping for a starting berth in the Lions XV, peeled off an advancing rolling maul to go over in the left corner, sending Ulster into oranges 22-15 to the good.
Giving this correspondent an opportunity to imbibe local grape and grain and paint a portaloo a heady hue of saffron.
The advent of professionalism in rugby has meant that this, more than ever before, is a squad game, and so it proved in the second half.
The hosts took off their master craftsman Dan Parks and brought on the willing but limited Miah Nikora. Ulster brought off Lutton and Nick Williams for John Afoa and Ian Henderson. Witness the inevitable. Nikora shanked a kick upfield, the ball worked its way to Ian Henderson and the baby-faced Goliath skittled through three tackles and offloaded to Tommy Bowe to take the game away from brave Cúige Chonnacht. A minute later Payne ran in from almost half-way to cross in the corner.
Mark Anscombe’s men went home with a five-try bonus point win and a step closer to a guaranteed home semi-final and possible date with destiny.
For Eric Elwood, whose career straddled both the amateur and professional eras, this was a bitter pill to swallow. He leaves Cúige Chonnacht in a matter of weeks after 23 years at the club. But he leaves it in improving health, handing the reins to another stalwart of both eras, Pat Lam.
For Ulster, a case of onward and upward, for Cúige Chonnacht, a case of thank yous and Fáiltes.
For my liver, Deus adiuvet me.
Transcribed by DroptheClaw from an etching in a saffron hue on a portaloo wall