Team in Focus: Connacht

Last season: C. They struggled domestically and failed to build on their AmlinVase semi-final from the year before. Then all their decent players left. However, Leinster winning it all meant they got a backdoor ticket to the HEC.

So far this year: Grinding on in the RaboProLeague – 3 wins from 7. They won’t be too pleased given everyone else has been understrength, but at least new players (of which there are many) have had some integration time.

Prospects: As usual, as soon as any Connacht players impressed, they bailed out of there. Sean Cronin, Jamie Hagan and Fionn Carr headed (back) to Leinster, and Ian Keatley went to Munster. Another bunch of surplus to requirement players from the other 3 provinces stepped into their shoes, but another season of embedding guys who will leave at the first opportunity is Connachts’s lot.

The front row will suffer for the loss of 2/3 of its starting contingent. The fantastically-named Rodney Ah You comes in a tight-head, but its more likely to be Rodney Peep Collapsing Yes You against the big sides. Hooker Ethienne Reynecke came from Sarries to replace Cronin, but its fair to say he isn’t top class. Brett Wilkinson is another Saffa, and is a decent honest loose-head who won’t let you down. Stewart Maguire used to be the a big prospect in the Leinster academy – lets hope he fulfils some hype.

Mike McCarthy held his own in the pre-RWC Ireland training camps and is typical of the current generational of Irish second rows (Paulie aside) – hard working but uninspiring. Connacht look to have recruited well in the back-row – TJ Anderson and particularly Eoghan Grace are young men who once had a promising career and have come West to do a Jirry and get regular gametime to step on. Grace was once in the position Peter O’Mahoney finds himself in – that is the young saviour of an ageing Munster back-row. It hasn’t happened so far, but at least now he has a shirt. Johnny O’Connor and John Muldoon are the grizzled veterans here – O’Connor once had words with Egg Chaser’s younger brother on Egg’s stag in his moonlighting bouncer role, and gained kudos for allowing trousers to remain on head.

Paul O’Donohoe never quite made the grade at Leinster – a couple of starts here and there tended to end when established names came back – he’s still young and possesses a snappy pass. He’ll think a few good few years in Connacht will set him up to return home to perhaps take Eoin Reddan’s place in the Leinster squad – he is not to be underestimated. Former Leicester Tiger Frank Murphy will backup O’Donohoe and is an able deputy. The (very) poor mans Morne Steyn, Niall O’Connor, has joined from Ulster. In Matt Williams final year in Ravenhill, O’Connor kept iHumph on the bench, and he offers a towering boot and defensive solidity. In many ways, its exactly what Connacht need – he will kick goals from anywhere inside the opposition half, and keeping the scoreboard ticking over will be a key component in the hanging-in-there gameplan Connacht generally adopt.

The diamond in the backline is young Tiarnan O’Halloran, the star turn in the Connacht academy’s respectable production line of the last year or 2. The lad is only 20, and can play at centre or full-back. If he continues his progression, there is a fair chance he could be the first Connacht player since Eric Elwood to consistently make national squads. He should get plenty of time this year, and expect him to catch the eye. Hopefully players like O’Halloran do not have to leave Galway to make career progress, but the reality is, without regular HEC football, you aren’t getting international recognition.

Relatively familiar names like Gavin Duffy and Mark McCrea are bog standard Rabo backline merchants. Fetu’u Vainikolo at one stage was a peer of Israel Dagg, but concerns about his positioning led to the Highlanders letting him slide, and he has wound up in Connacht – he could be a real danger and is a like-for-like replacement for Carr, albeit with greater Oooooooohhh factor. Kiwi Benson Stanley was at one stage interested in rocking up to Galway, but rumour has it he confused Connacht with Leinster and didn’t sign when he realised the the difference between the RDS and the Sportsground – and we aren’t talking about the availability of butternut squash focaccia and skinny caramel frappaccinos.

Connacht’s inaugural HEC adventure was kind in terms of the bank balance potential of the draw – European big guns Toulouse will bring their unique brand of brilliance to Galway, and will be joined by Conor O’Shea’s Harlequins and the eminently beatable Gloucester. Toulouse in November will be the biggest and most glamourous game in Connacht’s history, and the exposure alone will be worth its weight in gold. At home, Connacht’s small squad tends to mean that, instead of rotation, they target particular games to make best use of resources – this means they tend to mix heroic home victories with pastings on their travels. Its not always pretty, but you can only work with the tools you have

Verdict: Despite the chopping and changing, the summer has been a successful one for Connacht – season ticket sales has rocketed following Heineken Cup qualification, and the feel-good factor around the province is high. The increased exposure and revenue should help bring through more Tiarnan O’Halloran’s, which is realistically the best way forward for the poor relation of Irish rugby. The need for regular HEC rugby is likely to only be fulfilled through the back door, so young talent is the way forward.

On the pitch, we foresee some schizophrenia in the HEC. Connacht have generally been very competitive at home in the AmlinVase, and might target Gloucester, and should come very close to winning that one. Away, it could be painful. Five match points in the pool would represent a major triumph for Elwood.

In the RaboLeague, Connacht are struggling after 7 games in which every other side has been under-strength. Finishing above someone other than Aironi would ensure a good season at home. The chances of getting back to the HEC rest solely on the shoulder of the Leinster squad, but the increased exposure, revenue and investment from this season will mean it is a good season for Connacht no matter what happens on the field.