Ask Connacht legend Jack Carty to sum up the changes he has seen during his time with the province, and he provides one particularly vivid illustration.
“You would walk around Galway 10 years ago, and it would have been Leinster, Munster and Ulster jerseys, whereas now it’s just Connacht jerseys everywhere,” said the long-serving fly-half.
He has also seen a real transformation both on and off the field. He was part of the squad that won the PRO12 in 2016, as the team from west of Ireland really put themselves on the rugby map, and he has become an increasingly pivotal figure in a side that is very much to be reckoned with today, as demonstrated by them having booked a place in the BKT United Rugby Championship play-offs.
Major improvements at Connacht
Then there’s been the major makeover for the Sportsground, with further massive redevelopment work set to see the construction of a new North Stand and High Performance Centre.
It’s all a far cry from the way things were when the Athlone-born Carty made his debut for his home province back in 2012.
“Honestly, the gym when I started off, you wouldn’t have swung a cat in it. They had to split the backs in half and split the forwards in three because it was so small,” he recalled.
“Seeing where it came from then to where it is now, people maybe forget the journey and where we have got to. We have obviously got all these new facilities coming now as well. When I think of it in that regard, it’s obviously something I reflect on with a lot of pride.
“Demographically, you are up against it compared to other places, so you can’t make drastic changes straight away and expect to see the results in a year.
“This is the accumulation of work for 15-20 years where you have to be incredibly intelligent and smart in how you do things. The off-the-pitch team deserve a massive amount of credit for what the place is now.”
Carty, who overtook Eric Elwood as Connacht‘s record points scorer earlier this season, continued: “What I said about the jerseys is indicative of the work that’s been done here.
“To have come the whole way through that, with all the players I’ve played with, and then to captain the side, it’s something I take immense pride in.
“It’s those games when the ground is packed out; you see what it means to the fans and also what it means to the younger players who have come through.
“You grow up with the values of the place. I’ve been here since I was 12 or 13. Obviously, things have changed and different people have come through the doors and what not, but there is the same kind of underlying ethos and themes in and around the place which is good to see.”
HE'S DONE IT! 🏅
Jack Carty passes the legendary Eric Elwood to become our 𝙖𝙡𝙡-𝙩𝙞𝙢𝙚 𝙡𝙚𝙖𝙙𝙞𝙣𝙜 𝙥𝙤𝙞𝙣𝙩𝙨 𝙨𝙘𝙤𝙧𝙚𝙧!
What an achievement Jack 💚 pic.twitter.com/l2282i5e6E
— Connacht Rugby (@connachtrugby) January 28, 2023
It was another of those special nights at the Galway Sportsground last Saturday when Connacht beat Cardiff Rugby 38-19 to book a play-off spot. It’s been some turnaround, given they lost their opening three BKT URC matches and recorded just one win in their first five fixtures.
“There was maybe a sense of panic externally after the first three games, but we were quietly confident,” said skipper Carty.
“The way we started the season put us in a position where every game was a must-win, which is a strange position to be in when you are in week four and five, and it’s marked up where if you don’t win this game your season is nearly done.
“There were times maybe where we were questioning ourselves, but any time the question was asked we were solid in the fact of knowing where we were going.
“We have dug ourselves out of a hole. We have just ticked along and been focused on what we needed to do all year.”
Connacht are sixth in the table going into their final match of the regular season away to fourth-placed Glasgow Warriors on Saturday night. They will be determined to claim the win that would secure a top-six finish and guarantee Champions Cup rugby for next season.
Champions Cup qualification hopes
“It’s something exciting to look forward to,” said Carty.
“It would be massive to qualify for the Champions Cup. A lot of us have aspirations to play international rugby, and that’s where you need to be playing if you want to be selected.
“For the fans, having those types of games here would be another step up and just for the club, in terms of revenue, every little bit helps.”
As for his own playing future, the 30-year-old Irish international – who has now made 192 appearances for his province – is planning on being around for a good while yet.
“When I was younger, I was thinking I would be finishing off by the age of 31, 32, but the body feels good, I feel fresh and I’m looking forward to tearing into it,” he said.
“You definitely have a different outlook on the game as you get older. You have a wider appreciation of the ebbs and lows, of what’s going on and the momentum swings.”