By Graham Gillespie
In the 76th minute of Sunday’s Pro 12 clash against the Scarlets, Connacht had the opportunity to take a 19-18 lead as Jack Carty stood over a crucial penalty. The penalty was relatively far out but its difficulty was diminished by the kick being dead centre in front of the posts. Still, it was by no means a gimme especially when the penalty would presumably be the winning score of the game if successful. The man tasked with job Jack Carty easily slotted the ball between the uprights and it looked as if the Tribesmen had ended their three game losing streak and secured an impressive away win in Llanelli. However just a couple minutes later prop Ronan Loughney conceded a penalty in an excellent position for the Scarlets whilst getting sin binned in the process. No mistake was made with the resulting penalty and the Scarlets jumped ahead of Leinster to return to the top of Pro 12 table, forcing Connacht to wait to end their losing spell and rue another near miss. A pervasive trend throughout all main team sports within Connacht in recent times.
It would needless to be too harsh on Connacht Rugby. They are in the middle of perhaps one of their best seasons ever with them having a great chance of assuring Champions Cup rugby for next season by finishing in the top 6 along with being potential challengers to win European silverware this year in the shape of the European Challenge Cup. They also won at Thomond Park against Munster for the first time in 29 years, which could be interpreted as a sign that Connacht are the only province going in the right direction in Irish Rugby at the moment. However despite all these positives, the loss in Wales against Llanelli was reminiscent of that classic Connacht sporting trait of being so near yet so far, a trait that the province’s rugby team is not exempt from. Following the historic victory in Limerick against Munster, Connacht could not follow up and lost to Leinster and Ulster during the Christmas period, but the most important and painful near miss of this Connacht team came back in May when they fell to an extra time defeat to Gloucester in a Champions Cup play-off 40-32. If it is any solace to Connacht fans, they are certainly not the only ones to suffer this agony in the west of Ireland.
Despite being all conquering and completely dominant on a provincial level winning the last five provincial football titles, the Mayo football team have sadly become a byword for nearly men in the All-Ireland series. It really is the hope that kills you when supporting the Mayo footballers. The last few years has followed the same general soul crushing sequence. The Mayo fans start to dream of winning of their first All-Ireland since 1951 after dismantling Connacht and a convincing victory in an All-Ireland quarter or semi-final, before a heartbreakingly inevitable loss crushes Mayo’s hopes once more. It is no surprise that Eamonn Sweeney has depicted Mayo failings as a “Kafkaesque black farce” in the past.
At least Mayo get to the stage where they can have their dream destroyed which is a lot more than can be said for Sligo, Roscommon, and Leitrim. Although instead of near misses these counties especially Roscommon tend to favour spectacular capitulations. After gaining promotion to division one in the league Roscommon had many reasons to be optimistic and believe they could win the Nestor cup, but inexplicably they collapsed against a Sligo side in Markievicz Park that were made look abysmal by Mayo and were confirmed as average by Tyrone. This fiasco resulted in John Evans losing his job as Roscommon manager with Kevin McStay and Fergal O’Donnell taking charge of a team who must endure growing levels of expectancy in their home county. A near miss for Leitrim on the other hand these days is losing by ten points instead of the usual twenty, although the return of Emlyn Mulligan just might help Leitrim offer a more respectable performance this year.
While the Galway footballers have put unspectacular but relatively dignified campaigns recently (notwithstanding the humiliation at the hands of Mayo in, the Galway hurlers have taken a leaf out of the Mayo footballer’s book and dabbled in the art of losing tragically. Their participation in the Leinster championship has brought them some success but as yet it has not aided them in securing an All-Ireland and the Liam McCarthy cup for the first time since 1988. The near misses against Kilkenny in 2012 and in 2015 during that miserable September weekend for Connacht sport where Mayo also lost their replay to Dublin, was all too familiar a feeling for many fans.
In Soccer, Galway United’s near misses commonly involved simply striving to remain in existence but last season they also contacted a more traditional form of the Connacht contagion narrowly missing out to St. Patrick’s Athletic in the EA Sports Cup final which went to penalties adding to the post-All-Ireland final heartache. Sligo Rovers it could argued are the only team to buck this trend having a won a league title in 2012, but have regress to mid table in the last couple seasons. Maybe there is something that the others can learn from the Bit o’Red’s success, it may have something to do with acquiring confidence and belief, or maybe all these near misses are just a coincidence.