DONAL LENIHAN: Connacht reaching for the top

THERE is a famous picture hanging in the headquarters of the ACT Brumbies in Canberra.

Formed in 1996 to provide the third Australian franchise deemed necessary to compete in the new Super 12 tournament, the Brumbies were equally essential for the Australian national side in order to broaden their base of players for the professional era and challenge New Zealand and South Africa in the newly-constructed Tri Nations championship.

Initially the Brumbies were populated by rejects from the New South Wales Waratahs supplemented by a few Queenslanders, with the remainder coming from the ACT rugby union, which had represented the region dating back to 1899, when they played the British Isles.

The picture was taken in the Brumbies dressing room just after they smashed a Waratahs side coached by Matt Williams and packed with Australian internationals by 56-9, scoring eight tries. Former Munster lock John Langford features prominently, waving his jersey in the air and as one of those let go by the Waratahs, you can see just what that victory meant to him.

Incredibly they reached the Super 12 final that year, beaten by the Auckland Blues. After losing the 2000 final to the Crusaders, the following year they became the first team outside of New Zealand to win it, a remarkable feat given their origins.

It may be taking Connacht a little longer to make their mark in the pro game but similarities exist. One of the reasons the journey has been more fractured than the Brumbies’ is due to the uncertainty that hung over their role in the IRFU’s scheme of things, which saw them threatened with extinction more than once.

At long last they are beginning to find their feet, with new chief executive Tom Sears and a recently-appointed, independent Professional Game Board finally delivering direction, identity and clarity. Sears has even been so bold on recent roadshows around the province to suggest his ambition for Connacht extends to winning a Heineken Cup. That may sound fanciful but without ambition you have nothing.

For too long Connacht looked to the governing body for leadership without any great support. They were the poor relations when it came to funding and far too often looked for excuses when it came to apportioning blame for their predicament instead of looking inwards for solutions. Now there is leadership from within and the impact of that is there for all to see. The matchday experience at the Sportsground is vastly improved along with the facilities and crowds are turning up. For Connacht to prosper it is essential that continues to happen.

Of even greater importance, younger players who, like their Brumbies counterparts of old, are surplus to requirements in other provinces are now being offered a second chance and are making their mark in the top echelon of European rugby. That should not be seen as a weakness. It helps the motivational process when dealing with players with chips on both shoulders and something to prove. Munster traded on that for years and didn’t do too badly.

For the Waratahs, one can easily substitute Leinster. I’m not so sure if there are any dressing room photos in the Sportsground depicting Connacht’s recent 34-6 win over Leinster but I’d be surprised if there isn’t. Currently, Eric Elwood’s squad includes Jason Harris-Wright, Nathan White and Paul O’Donohoe, all part of Leinster’s recent Heineken Cup-winning squads but then surplus to requirements, while Dave McSharry, Kyle Tonetti, Dave Moore, Dave Gannon and Mick Kearney all played underage for Leinster.

Mike McCarthy’s move in the other direction, and let’s be clear it was the player who made that final decision to switch, has done nothing to relieve the tension between the provinces. There has been a lot of bleating and dissatisfaction in the west in relation to that move but it is crucial Connacht don’t allow that derail their recent advancement. I can understand how McCarthy, who turned down a similar move two years ago when pressurised from within, has decided to finish his career with a chance to compete immediately for top honours. If Sears is entitled to show ambition, then so too is McCarthy. Connacht need to move on quickly and focus on the positives, of which there are many. After all, they have benefited substantially from talent moving in the opposite direction.

Of greater significance is the number of homegrown players being nurtured under the excellent tutelage of Nigel Carolan in their academy and beginning to make a serious impact, including Eoin Griffin, Robbie Henshaw, Tiernan O’Halloran, Andrew Browne, Eoin McKeon and Denis Buckley. That is a marvellous throughput and will add significantly to the depth of players available to Ireland’s 2015 and 2019 World Cup campaigns. The challenge for Connacht now is to make sure they hold onto that talent pool for, as Connacht people, they can inspire another generation and show what playing for your home province means. That is what Joe Schmidt was alluding to when he said Connacht must create an environment where players won’t want to leave.

We are now beginning to see the fruits of the work being done by dedicated people in Connacht Rugby, at both amateur and professional level, who have toiled for years to broaden the base of the game in the west. They are now offering accelerated opportunities to a raft of young players who would otherwise be struggling for meaningful game time.

Once those players continue to be supported by a core of experienced and hardened professionals they will thrive, just as is happening this season with the astute signing of Dan Parks, an inspired decision by Elwood. Not everyone’s cup of tea when playing for Glasgow and Scotland, Parks enjoyed even less support from the Cardiff Blues faithful, where his penchant for standing deep and playing the corners in preference to feeding the attacking capabilities of Jamie Roberts, Alex Cuthbert and Leigh Halfpenny won him few admirers.

SINCE his arrival in Galway, however, he appears reborn and has mixed his game perfectly, offering the on-field direction that was sadly lacking. Outside of his badly-needed goal-kicking consistency, he has also been able to unleash the attacking qualities shown by McSharry, Griffin, O’Halloran and Henshaw.

In addition, Parks has taken last season’s Irish U20 scrum-half Kieran Marmion under his wing and the former Exile has had to learn fast. With first-choice scrum-halves Frank Murphy and Paul O’Donohoe injured for most of the season, Marmion has been fast-tracked and played in every competitive game so far. In normal circumstances he would have got little or no exposure whereas now even Declan Kidney has been impressed and he could soon form part of an extended Irish squad.

Connacht also need to embrace the fact they should be utilised as a vehicle for fast-tracking promising players from other provinces, aided and abetted by the experienced Michael Swift, Johnny O’Connor, John Muldoon, Nathan White, Gavin Duffy and George Naoupu.

Connacht appear to have the mix right on that front and despite an horrific run of injuries, have remained competitive. If they do their job properly then those players will want to stay and get consistent first-team rugby in preference to taking the route recently taken by Fionn Carr, Jamie Hagan and even Sean Cronin. The key to that, however, is staying in the Heineken Cup and given the fractured nature of the negotiations taking place between warring factions on the ERC board at present, there are no guarantees on that front for any of the Irish provinces.


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