Jonny O’Connor and Gavin Duffy are returning to domestic rugby with outspoken views on where they’ve come from — and where they’re going.

Connacht’s signings spoke to Edward Newman

IT made great copy and read like a fairytale — Lawrence Dallaglio urging Wasps coach Warren Gatland to sign “that itch on the field” Johnny O’Connor after a pre-season friendly against Connacht in 2003.

That was only part of the story, according to O’Connor, who felt uncomfortable in the company of coach Steph Nel. “Back then I didn’t particularly like the coach, to be honest, and that was a factor in leaving,” recounts O’Connor. “People thought I just wanted to get away but the truth was no-one wanted to be there when Steph Nel was around because he was a bit of an a**hole. I think partly that’s why so many players left that year because they couldn’t f***ing stand him and because he was an absolute lunatic.

“He would do your head in — you’d be baby-sitting him yourself. It seemed you were looking after the coach rather than looking after yourself.”

Now Johnny is back. The fearless flanker, with the moniker “Johnny O’Concrete”, is also one to tell it straight. After a largely successful four-year hiatus with Wasps, O’Connor feels proud to be going back home again.

The Galway man is one of three high-profile Connacht-born signings, who along with Gavin Duffy and Mel Deane, have signed on the dotted line in the last 10 days for the westerners.

After an exodus of players in 2003, the sight of some returning sons could be the first signs of the beginning of a new golden era for Connacht. The perennial poor relation of the IRFU. Categorised as a development province as opposed the better-resourced environments of Munster, Leinster and Ulster, they are seeking equality at the top table. More signings are imminent, and the signals are that Connacht are aiming to mirror the Munster template and building a team around home-grown talent.

Galway’s O’Connor and Mayo’s Duffy are also returning to resuscitate their flagging Ireland careers. O’Connor is endeavouring to rediscover the form that catapulted him to first-choice flanker from November 2004 to November 2005. Duffy, meanwhile, took a huge gamble on his international career by opting to stay with relegated Harlequins for a season (2005/06) despite the option of taking up more enticing offers from other Premiership clubs or with one of the Irish provinces.

Still, a cynical view would be that although Connacht’s ambition is admirable, it’s difficult to beat off the perception that players of Duffy’s or O’Connor’s calibre would enhance their chances of an international recall with a switch to Munster or Leinster.

“Perhaps that’s the perception in some quarters,” says Duffy, who completed a medical in Dublin on Thursday and is set to line out with Connacht away to Leinster in the Magners League on March 24.

“I had to deal with the options that were in front of me. I thought about it long and hard and I decided what was best for myself.

“We have Johnny and Mel Deane and few more signings to come through, but the core of the squad are remaining and new players are beginning to come through the academy as well. We’re all Connacht lads ultimately, and if we’re not stronger next year, then the year after and the year after we’ll get stronger and stronger.

“You only have to see what Munster have achieved having home grown fellows — with the belief within Connacht there is no reason why we can’t do that. The underage is good, the U20s were competitive, the U18s beat Munster schools this season. We’ll have to start bringing people through like that.”

O’Connor, who returns home for the beginning of next season, says the seeds of a possible transfer were planted after regular contact with Connacht manager, Tim Allnut. O’Connor, feeling uncomfortable by Ian McGeechan’s constant rotation system at Wasps, gauged the time was right for a move. He intended to stay at Wasps for just two seasons, and though he stayed for four, the tug of home was always there. “I quite like where I’m from,” explains O’Connor, “and quite proud of where I’m from. As along as we keep bringing in players and halt the exodus, you’re going to be on to a good thing.”

He added: “They talk of the Connacht exodus in 2003, but I was guilty of that too. I f***ed off as well,” adds O’Connor strongly. “That was for personal reasons. I thought I needed to get out of there and go and do things and got my just reward for doing it, for trying something different.

“I didn’t want to go home when I was 31 or 32 on the back end of a career. I wanted to return when I was on top of my game, and while I was still able to play.”

Duffy, like O’Connor, left Connacht in the summer of ‘03 for another London club, Harlequins, and discovered his niche as a full back of note at the Stoop, playing a starring role as Quins lifted the European Challenge Cup in 2004. European euphoria was offset by domestic horror the following season. It was genuine heartbreak in Duffy’s case. Although he could have moved to another Premiership club or moved home (Munster were interested), he stayed in London out of a sense loyalty to the supporters and because he felt partly responsible for bringing them down and felt emotionally compelled to bring them back up again.

When Dean Richards took the reigns in the summer 2005, Duffy was seen as an outside centre rather than a full back and, since Quins’ return to the Guinness Premiership this season, the 25-year-old’s appearances have become more fleeting. It’s why a return to Ireland could not have been timelier. “I was there four seasons,” says Duffy. “It was a tough decision to return. I was in and out of the team this year and was frustrated with the lack of opportunity I was getting.

“Ultimately, I felt it was a good time to return to Irish rugby. The provinces are getting stronger and the coaching is obviously at the highest level ever. I felt it was a good time to return, and some of the exciting signings Connacht have made for next year indicated to me that now would be a good time to join Connacht.”

Today, when Ireland run out against Scotland in Murrayfield, it’ll bring back happy memories for Duffy; two years ago, he ran in for a try in a 40-13 win. It turned out to be the last of his four caps. Duffy harbours ambitions of lining out again for Ireland, though some commentators believe that Eddie O’Sullivan — in his search to strengthen his squad — would be more likely to spend more time watching Quins or Wasps rather than Connacht in the Magners League.

Duffy reasons: “Anyone who wants to play for Ireland, must be playing first-team rugby week in week out. Ultimately, I wasn’t achieving that at Quins in the last few months. I just hope that if I do get selected at Connacht that I can put a few performances together that will warrant my position at Connacht and hopefully put myself back into contention with Ireland.”

O’Connor recognises that it’ll take “something special” to work his way back into O’Sullivan’s plans. “As things stand, Eddie has a good squad. I’m under no illusions. I’m not going to be shouting off saying ‘pick me, pick me’. I’ve got to work hard and I’ve got to produce something special to get involved in that squad and that’s the way it is at the moment. That’s what I’m looking to do.

“I’ve no complaints, I don’t think I’m hard done by or anything — I just know I need to do something special. Eddie has been fair. If I’m being honest I’ve played over here and played a couple of all right games, and I’ve sent my videos on to Mervyn Murphy (Ireland Video Analyst). To play on the Ireland team you’ve got to be a lot more special whereas if you’re an English club player, playing for England comes about after one good club game, and, bang, you’re in.”

The English environment has been good to O’Connor, his performances there earning him two Premierships, a Heineken Cup, and Powergen Cup and the first of 12 caps, against South Africa in November 2004. When he read Ronan O’Gara’s comments last October on the ‘over-hyped Premiership’, he says it didn’t create as big a stir amongst English players as many would believe. “They weren’t offended — it was like it wasn’t aimed at us at Wasps. They (Munster) were getting ready to play Leicester. It was good mind-warfare by Rog — fair play to him. People say controversial things all the time. It wasn’t that bad. No-one here took it that badly.

“There are some teams that are f***ing bluffers though. But, at the same time, the Magners League isn’t a massive league until all the players are around as well.”

According to the two players, there is recognition in England that Ireland now are leading the way amongst the four Home Nations. In the aftermath of England U20s defeat by Eric Elwood’s Ireland in Athlone over two weeks ago, Duffy says the Harlequins representatives were hugely impressed by many facets of Ireland’s play.

“This English U20 side were highly regarded in England but they came back saying: ‘The Irish were so well drilled, they knew exactly what they were doing, they played the conditions a lot better.’ And while the desire and the passion were still there, they said the Irish skills levels were right up there as well.”

O’Connor says: “Most the English players here appreciate how really good Ireland are. They think highly of us — always have.” However, the view of the English rugby supporter is altogether different, he says. “In terms of the English public it’s sickening (that Ireland are so good). I made a small fortune over here collecting bets because the rugby public here still think England are a good team.”

Though Duffy lined out at midfield with Mayo in the 1999 All-Ireland minor final in Croke Park, O’Connor couldn’t feel but envious of Wasps team-mates Joe Worsely and Tom Rees running on to the sacred GAA headquarters two weeks ago.

“It p***ed me off that Joe and couple of others got to play there before me! I said it to them as well: ‘Reesey, you’re the most English type of man I know — no way you should be playing here before me!’”

Duffy and O’Connor could have been colliding at the Stoop today in a sell-out Premiership clash between Quins and Wasps. O’Connor may get his taste of one last London derby, but the homecoming can’t come quick enough. “Rugby is so big in Ireland at the moment, it’s such an attraction, and it seems quite big in Galway now. For a sport to be big in Galway city is quite strange. City teams aren’t supported too well. I’m looking forward to getting back and having a positive influence, hopefully try and change a couple of things, communicate with Brads (Michael Bradley), make suggestions and hopefully we can move forward in the right direction and just try to be more efficient as a team.”

Duffy says: “You do have a lot of passion, a lot of pride of where you come from and that’s very evident in the way the provinces play. There are a lot of guys like that who are very proud to put on the Connacht jersey and ultimately that’s half the battle when you have guys who are dying for the jersey. Hopefully we can take another step forward next year in Connacht with the guys we have.”

Duffy may well start against Leinster on March 23. The Connacht revolution has begun.

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