Boxing clever? Connacht punch above their weight, says Peters
ERIC PETERS bridles in mock indignation at the suggestion that there was something rather incongruous about his presence among the citizens of Ireland’s wild west on a protest march through the streets of Dublin.
“A posh boy from Cambridge . . . I’m a man of the people, what are you talking about?” he splutters, laughing.
Teasing apart, the circumstances which embroiled the former Scotland captain in that battle to save Connacht 14 years ago when the Irish Rugby Union was poised to swing the axe in a bid to be able to provide greater funding for Leinster, Munster and Ulster makes a strong case for the truth of his claim.
After several seasons battling serious illness and injury the back-row forward had re-established himself with a 10-week spell at Rotherham during which they won 10 matches, including claiming the Powergen Cup, bringing him back to the attention of both international selectors and bigger clubs.
The SRU, setting up the ill-fated Borders franchise at the time, had spent its money and, in spite of Peters’ having been recalled by Scotland after a three year absence during the tour of North America, could not come up with any budget to offer him a deal, so when Connacht got in touch it was the one opportunity he had at the appropriate level, but there was a late twist.
“Just as I was heading over there, Wasps came in because someone had got injured, but I’d already said yes to Connacht and it was on the morning I was there to sign so, as I’d said I would, I did,” Peters explains.
Which is why, when matters came to a head, he found himself among those wielding placards as they demanded their province’s history be respected.
“It wasn’t remotely intimidating,” Peters notes. “I think they were making a point by way of freedom of speech. It was all very good mannered. I don’t remember any raucous behaviour.
“It all sort of fades back, but I think a fair few turned up and did the march. The various clubs and committees in Connacht pulled it together.”
As to his own mindset as someone newly pitched into this heady mix of sport and politics?
“I guess you’re supporting the guys. There was a big history and despite the limited resources and limited funding Connacht was punching above its weight back then as well,” says Peters.
“Partly because it’s a hard place to get to, on the Atlantic coast, not so much getting four different seasons in a day as in the course of a match as I remember, it can be quite an intimidating place and they tend to get good results there.
“So there was a strong spirit and they all wanted to carry that on. They obviously felt proud about its history and its contribution and felt they still had something to offer.
“I don’t think it [their disbandment] was ever definitely planned, but it was tabled as a topic of discussion within the Irish Union and with the pressure they managed to raise against it the Union backed down.”
His experience of that season was a good one as part of a trio of senior internationals, along with Eric Elwood, Connacht’s most famous player of the modern era who was in his last season and Warwick Waugh, with whom Peters had previously played at Bath.
“I enjoyed the season there. There was a good bunch of guys. The rest were young talented guys either from Connacht or the other provinces, who needed a game and there was a very good spirit. I think we lost in the quarters of the European Shield that year, but punched above our weight to get there I think. It was good fun.”
Reminding Peters of his own advancing middle age he also played that season for the Galwegians club alongside a teenage prospect named John Muldoon who is now himself the gnarled veteran who has led Connacht into today’s PRO12 Grand Final at Murrayfield from the front.
From his home in Surrey, then, there is a sense of identification with the underdog side that has earned its place in this showpiece match against the so-called “posh boys” of Leinster.
“I think saving Connacht was really important for Irish rugby,” Peters reckons. “I’m pleased that they’ve shown the other provinces that there is a fourth province in Ireland [capable] of punching above their weight.”
He draws encouragement from their efforts from a Scottish perspective too.
“I was born in Glasgow and a lot of the Scottish guys are there, so I’m glad to see them doing well,” he says.
“They won it last year and came close this year. That the Scottish teams and the likes of Connacht as underdogs are starting to do better is good. Similarly winning the London Sevens at the weekend is treading new ground.”
The rest of Scottish rugby gets its chance today to witness first-hand what that Connacht spirit has brought about. Most neutrals will doubtless be won over – as Eric Peters once was.