JACKSON COLUMN: Swift's Connacht marathon continues apace
6 May 2014 17:29pm
By Peter Jackson
Michael Swift's 13th season with Connacht is drawing to an end
Michael Swift puts the finishing touches to his 13th season at Connacht this week with no end in sight to a career without parallel in Celtic League history....writes Peter Jackson.
The evergreen Anglo-Irish lock was there when it all began in 2001 and he will still be there come September, out on his own with more PRO12 matches to his name than anyone else. And to think his first fully professional contract lasted barely a week.
Swift and Connacht would probably never have become such a major item had it not been for Richmond's sudden demise as an English Premiership club during the volatile early days of professionalism at the turn of the last century.
In March 1999, Richmond recognised Swift's potential by elevating him to full professional status as their third choice No.8 behind two formidable exponents of the trade, Ben Clarke of England and Scott Quinnell of Wales.
A little later that very same month, Swift found himself out of job along with just about everyone else.
The 21-year-old resurfaced at Leeds Tykes, then gathering momentum in the English First Division under the direction of another ex-international who knew a fair bit about playing No.8 and second row, Phil Davies.
While Swift went north, the coach at Richmond who had recognised his talent headed west, across the sea to Galwegians.
John Kingston wasted no time taking the club from the Second Division of the All-Ireland League into the First.
"We needed to beef up the pack and increase our ball-carrying ability," he said. "Michael's versatility in the second row and back row made him the ideal man.
"After Richmond had gone into administration, we'd all gone our different ways. Michael agreed to come over for a year and I knew from the word go that Connacht would like the look of him.
"He became part of their squad quite soon after arriving. It was a perfect fit. A big lump of a man, Michael's always been an absolute professional, a real hard worker and one of the nicest people you could wish to meet.
"Would he have got an Ireland cap had he been playing his rugby in Limerick or Dublin? Maybe but it's testament to Michael's loyalty that he has stayed fiercely loyal to Connacht and become a figurehead in the process, a real go-to man."
Swift took to Connacht as if it had always been his destiny, fittingly so given that his father comes from Wexford town and his mother from Dublin.
They, too, have upped sticks from London and settled in the Galway area, making it truly a family affair.
"They came over to see one of our matches and loved the place," says Swift. "They loved it so much that after living in London for 55 years, they retired to Galway."
Swift made his debut 13 seasons ago, played his 100th match for Connacht in 2006 against Montpellier, his 200th five years later against Edinburgh and has since become the first to pass 250.
The vast majority of those appearances have been in what has become the RaboDirect PRO12.
Swift's tally of 181 puts him ahead of two other Connacht players, Dan Parks (170) and John Muldoon (168), as well as other marathon men like Scarlets' prop Phil John (164), Dragons lock Adam Jones (161), Warriors hooker Dougie Hall (160) his second row team-mate Alastair Kellock (156) and Ospreys loosehead Duncan Jones (155).
Still good enough at 36 to win a contract for one more season at the very least, Swift has become synonymous with Connacht over a period when Galway has established itself as one of the tougher venues on the circuit, a city renowned for its hospitality and distinct lack of it on the pitch.
As Pat Lam's team prepare for their one remaining mission of the season, against the Ospreys in Swansea on Saturday, Connacht's senior professional will be forever thankful for Kingston's call.
"John was a bit disenchanted with the English game after what happened to Richmond," says Swift. "He asked whether I'd fancy going to the west of Ireland, knowing that my parents are both Irish.
"I thought: 'Yes, why not? I'll go there for a year and see something new'.
"At the beginning, I signed only for one season. I've been on a long journey and now that we've gone so far, I don't want it to end.
"Not so long ago we'd get a thousand for the not-so-glamorous home matches. Now we're close to 5,000 season ticket holders. It's gone through the roof which is wonderful.
"The success of the Ireland national team has helped and it's great to see so many Connacht jerseys being worn not just in Galway and throughout the province but in places like Dublin."
Along the way, Swift has changed shape as well as position, from blindside-cum-No.8 to second row. "At the time they told me to bulk up and put on a stone and a half in weight," he says. "Usually it's the opposite.
"Relying on bulk rather than speed suited me fine. I didn't have any speed to lose because I never had any in the first place."
Connacht and Swift had been in with a chance of qualifying for the seventh and last RaboDirect PRO12 place in next season's European Rugby Champions' Cup until they lost to the Scarlets in Llanelli at the end of March.
A winning return in Wales on Saturday could put them up eighth, exactly where they finished last season.
The top four play-off positions may all have been secured but the final pecking order to determine who plays who and where in the semi-finals have still to be determined.
Leinster, home to Edinburgh, must win to be sure of finishing first, a position which gives them the prospect of staging the Grand Final at the RDS for the third season in a row.
Glasgow Warriors, four points behind Leinster, will claim the other home semi-final and finish second, at the very least, if they beat Zebre.
The Italians come fresh from knocking the Ospreys out of title contention in thrilling fashion last Friday when prop Guglielmo Palazzani's stoppage time try ensured due reward for their ambition.
Even if Munster claim all five points from fourth-placed Ulster at Thomond Park, their Scottish rivals would finish second by virtue of having won more matches.
The other issue to be settled during Saturday's final round revolves around which Italian team will make it into the Champions' Cup.
Zebre, on track by virtue of a superior points-difference, attempt to follow last week's stirring win over Wales' top challenger by stopping Scotland's.
They go to Scotstoun where Gregor Townsend's Warriors will settle for nothing less than stretching their winning streak to nine matches while Treviso make their last stand at Rodney Parade, hoping for a late-season double over the Dragons, having beaten them 45-27 last month.
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