2012/13 Season Preview: Connacht

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.

Players In: 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)

Players Out: 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.

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?

Verdict: 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.

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  1. Nice preview. To be honest, I think Connacht will have another tough season.

  2. zdm

     /  August 24, 2012

    The biggest factor stunting the development of Connacht is the stubborn refusal of the national management to pick their players for the national team – their best players get poached by Leinster and Munster and they get lumped with the runts of the litter. There was no mention of Willie Faloon going anywhere near Galway until his star fell from Potential Future International to Belfast Benchwarmer.

    • Sod the national management. Duffy, Wilkinson, Loughney and (the handsome) McCarthy are all being held back from Connacht duty after being taken to NZ for what I assume was a holiday, because it sure wasn’t for the rugby.

      I’d prefer the national management left those players alone and let them get on with it. There’s something very stupid about having the same player management system for players you don’t even use.

    • Adam

       /  August 24, 2012

      Why should the national management pick players that aren’t better than the incumbents or even the subs in order to appease Connacht fans?

      • Taking important players out of Connacht and depleting an already thin squad doesn’t appease Connacht fans at all.

      • Adam

         /  August 24, 2012

        “The biggest factor stunting the development of Connacht is the stubborn refusal of the national management to pick their players for the national team ”

        This is nonsense.

      • zdm

         /  August 24, 2012

        In Ireland, playing for the national team is still the highest reward for a player so if a player isn’t getting picked for the national team while playing for Connacht, that player will leave – this hardly needs to be explained – Fionn Carr has gone to gather splinters at the RDS in the hope that he will get noticed by the national management doing so. He is just one of the latest on a long conveyor belt of players to move south or east to try and break in to the national squad.
        I’m not suggesting that players from Connacht should be picked to “appease” their fans and nor am I suggesting that we play Eoin Griffen instead of Brian O’Driscoll just to balance the numbers a bit but it is surely better for the development of Ireland and the development of Connacht if the best players from out west are playing for Connacht rather than not playing for Leinster or Munster? We saw in the BNZ tour how woefully unprepared and naieve the second and third line of players were and the kind of nous required international rugby can only be gained by playing in as many games as possible.

      • Adam – I don’t think anyone is advocating tokenistic caps for Connacht players. As you say, they have to be good enough to get picked. However, a lot of commentators would argue that it’s harder to get recognised when playing for Connacht because they’re a weaker side than the other provinces. Fionn Carr was overlooked for a national cap in 2009 when he was top of the ML try-scoring charts, in favour of Ian Dowling and Denis Hurley. While Ireland have been scratching around for tightheads, Jamie Hagan was an ever-present in the front row for Connacht for two years, but national management never showed much interest in him, even at Wolfhounds level.

        It just means players going there know they have little chance of gaining international recognition no matter how well they play. It probably influenced the decisions of Carr, Hagan et al to take the risky moves to be squad players with Leinster and Munster.

      • Adam

         /  August 25, 2012

        Fionn Carr was never good enough to be a proper international, the fact he can’t make matchday squads at Leinster with internationals away speaks volumes, likewise Hagan was Leinster’s 3rd choice TH last season.

      • Adam

         /  August 25, 2012

        “surely better for the development of Ireland and the development of Connacht if the best players from out west are playing for Connacht rather than not playing for Leinster or Munster?”

        Which Connacht players are these that are playing for Leinster or Munster?

        Keatley – Leinster product, moved to Connacht for gametime and to prove himself, got a move to a bigger side
        Cronin – Munster product, moved to Connacht for gametime and to prove himself, got a move to a bigger side
        Carr – Leinster product who didn’t make the grade initially, earned a move back to Leinster where he still hasn’t made the grade.
        Hagan – Leinster product who managed to get a deal back with his home province.

        If the likes of Griffin and O’Halloran were being poached you may have an issue but guys who only move to Connacht to get noticed moving on is nothing you can complain about.

      • I don’t disagree with anything you’ve said, Adam, but there are some other factors that sour the whole thing.

        I agree with you that Connacht fans can have no complaint that once a player’s contract is up that he is well within his rights to move on, but all four moved at the same time after the IRFU orchestrated its shameful contract lock on Connacht. That resulted in almost the entire squad being out of contract at the same time and the Connacht carcass was picked clean by various vultures.

        It has also been an unwritten rule since Eddie’s days that if you wanted to play for Ireland you had to be playing Heineken Cup rugby. The “Big 4” were courted, and certainly in the case of the front row players, pressured into leaving in order to get HEC experience. Connacht announced the re-signing of Hagan, with Jamie himself releasing a press release saying how happy he was to be staying with Connacht, only for Leinster (and the IRFU?) to convince him to go back on his word.

        In the end Hagan became the Pro12 prop, helping Leinster when their squads were thin, not a HEC prop. All the while Loughney started in the Heineken Cup and earned an Ireland cap, for which Connacht fans felt very proud, but Kidney classified as having to play an inexperienced prop.

        I also have no doubt that should the IRFU go ahead with their succession plan then decent Irish players will be at a premium and the other provinces will look to up and coming Connacht players with more gametime experience than their own rising stars. We’ll see then how easy it will be to retain the likes of O’Halloran.

  3. FYI Frank Murphy underwent knee surgery at the end of the season and is still out. Marmion and Dave Moore will be battling for the start, with POD also slightly injured, although he may be back in time.

  4. HenryFitz

     /  August 24, 2012

    I thought Fionn Carr and Jamie Hagan went back to Leinster because they’re Leinstermen, and for the money. Keatley and Cronin moved to further their international ambitions, and for the money. The biggest difference between Connacht and the other provinces is that they receive and generate less money. They may be stunted slightly by the lack of international recognition for their players, but that pales beside the money issue. The rough equation is more money = better team = more international recognition.

    They have also traditionally had very few clubs and schools to choose from, though that has changed recently and the next four or five years will see some very good talent coming through. The 20s team are defending interpro champions and a glance at the A side that beat Munster yesterday shows it to be full of handy young players (some of them blow-ins). Like any province, the identity and long-term success of the side depend on its being filled with home-grown players of sufficient quality, which is becoming a more realistic prospect.

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