AH, CONNACHT. THE plucky men from the West.
The dog track. The lashing rain and howling wind. Michael Swift. The defeats plucked from the jaws of victory. Johnny O’Concrete. Yes, it’s time to see how Eric Elwood’s mob can do this year.
Last season: their best in some time. Heineken Cup rugby came to Connacht for the first time, and while the extra workload threatened to derail their season for a while, they came through in the end, securing a famous win and denying Harlequins a place in the last eight as a result. In the Pro12, they managed a respectable eighth position, securing seven wins.
Dan Parks (Cardiff), Nathan White (Leinster),Willie Faloon (Ulster), Jason Harris-Wright (Bristol), Danie Poolman (Stormers), Matt Healy, Mata Fafita, JP Cooney, Ultan Dillane and Brian Murphy (AIL level)
Ray Ofisa, Henry Fa’afila, Dermot Murphy, Dylan Rogers, Jamie Stephens, Brian Tuohy (all released or retired),Niall O’Connor (Ulster)
This is Eric Elwood’s third season in charge and his first two have been characterised by a completely opposing attitude to that of his predecessor Michael Bradley. Where Bradley appeared to accept Connacht’s lot as the runt of the Irish litter, Elwood has bolshily demanded they get a better deal. Where Bradley targeted specific games and threw his hat at others, Elwood has sought to make Connacht compete in every match. Where Bradley was orange, Elwood is a pasty-faced Irishman if ever there was one.
Connacht fans grew tired of Bradley’s defeatist approach, but it hasn’t all been easy for Elwood either. Last year they embarked on a mid-season 14-match losing streak, through five Heineken Cup and nine Pro12 matches. It included losses in Aironi and at home to Treviso. At the same time, Bradley’s Edinburgh were on their way to the knockout stages of the Heineken Cup, and playing an eye-catching offload-heavy brand of rugger in the process. Of course, Bradley’s side barely turned up for league games, with the coach’s ‘targeting’ of games reaching new levels of dichotomy. It did make one wonder if there was something to Bradley’s approach after all. Connacht’s small squad looked flogged to death by January.
This season, they’ll have another heavy workload to contend with, because them lads from Leinster have once again put them in the Heineken Cup. The draw’s been kinder this time, pooling Connacht with Zebre, Biarritz and Harlequins. Three wins is a very realistic target.
Paul O’Donohoe celebrates only Heineken Cup win… so far. ©INPHO/Dan Sheridan
Their squad looks better equipped to perform this season. Last year Connacht had to learn to cope without the loss of their four best players, who decamped to Leinster and Munster, but this year the playing group has been bolstered rather than compromised. Recruitment has never been Connacht’s strongest suit, but this season’s new arrivals look well thought through and should improve the squad.
Nathan White had a highly productive spell with Leinster, and by all accounts was well regarded within the squad. He’ll scrummage solidly on the tighthead side of the scrum, and offers a fair bit around the park. Right now he’s a much better player than Jamie Hagan.
Willie Faloon may never have quite fulfilled his potential at Ulster, but should get a run of games under his belt at Connacht, and we may see the best of him. He lacks physicality and runs hot and cold, but if he can improve his consistency he could be the new Niall Ronan.
Another shrewd piece of business is bringing young hooker Jason Harris-Wright home from Bristol. The Bray man had some good games at Leinster and a reasonable season in the English Championship. Stormers winger Danie Poolman is perhaps the highest profile signing they’ve ever made. He has some Super Rugby experience, and should add a dash of class to Connacht’s back play.
The best of the bunch is getting Dan Parks from Cardiff. Parks has his critics, but is exactly the sort of high-percentage goal kicker Connacht have lacked. When a side loses so many tight matches (they won seven losing bonus points last season, the highest number in the league), every fluffed kick counts and Parks should turn a few more clutch situations into wins this year. We suspect he will be brought into the backroom team in some capacity as well – he is intelligent and we think he might buy into Connacht the way Gatty did back in the late 90s – it’s a superb signing in our view.
An intriguing element of the summer’s recruiting is Elwood bolstering the squad with a number of players from AIL level. Leo Auva’a and especially James Coughlan are two recent success stories in making this transition, and the likes of Galwegians centre Brian Murphy have been brought in to improve the depth chart in positions where it’s needed. They’re also, presumably, brought in with the British & Irish Cup in mind, in which Connacht are competing for the first time this year. It should be a good platform for their high-achieving academy players to step up another level.
Of those already there, we’re particular fans of handsome devil Mike McCarthy, Ronan Loughney, Tiernan O’Halloran and Eoin Griffen, while Gavin Duffy remains a fine player. If there was one position where Connacht laboured badly last year it was scrum half, where neither Paul O’Donohue nor Frank Murphy offer the kind of swift service to reliably launch Connacht’s backs. What chance Ireland U-20 starlet Kieran Marmion being fast tracked to the first team?
So, it’s going to be another tough season for the Westies, but when has it ever not been? With a kinder draw in Europe, we can see Connacht winning home and away to Zebre and winning one other home game. Harlequins will know what to expect in Galway this time, but Biarritz have been known to underestimate the smaller teams.
In the league, it’ll be hard to improve on eighth. Last season the gap between them and seventh placed Cardiff was thirteen points. A target of ten wins would be something to aim at, and if they managed it, would be a tremendous achievement for Elwood.
You have to ask where Connacht’s ceiling is, and we may get some insight this year. When you have the same attendance for games against Aironi in the league and Quins in the H-Cup, you have to suspect that’s your maximum fanbase. The off-season and HEC draw could not really have gone any better. If they don’t break the glass ceiling beneath the other three provinces, three Welsh teams and one Scottish team now, they might not be able to do it at all.