Connacht fans hope the only way is up

It’s fair to say that the selection of Kieran Keane over a year ago as successor to Pat Lam was greeted with a level of shock in the west that has only now been matched by his dismissal two days after leading Connacht to a record win over Leinster.

That 47-10 win was the biggest Connacht have achieved against an Irish province in the professional era and the home support in the 8,125 on Saturday left the Sportsground with a pep in their step for the first time since that glory day in Edinburgh two years ago this month.

But that 20-10 win over Leinster in the PRO12 final, Connacht’s first trophy in their 131-history, is looking more and more like a distant memory, a one-hit wonder to be treasured.

The Sportsground remains the worst ground in the PRO14 and despite all sorts of rhetoric, nothing tangible has progressed on that front since that first bit of silverware was garnered in 2016.

The season which followed was a shambles with Pat Lam announcing his departure before Christmas but even by then the damage was done with a dreadful start to the campaign after an insufficient preseason. The season fizzled out with 13 losses in 22 games and an eighth place finish out of 12 teams.

The arrival of Keane was supposed to be the start of a new era. Connacht chief executive Willie Ruane heralded Keane’s arrival as ‘a perfect fit’ after ‘a rigorous process’, and everything suggested that the new man would build on the magnificent progress made by Lam.

Keane himself seemed enthusiastic after a brief trip to the west of Ireland 15 months ago to seal the deal.

“During my recent trip to the west of Ireland, I had the chance to meet many people within Connacht Rugby and I was immediately taken by the genuine passion they have for the people they represent and the ambition they have to achieve so much more.

“It was clear very early on in our discussions that Connacht Rugby was a good fit for me and I am looking forward to the challenge ahead and to working with the players and everyone associated with the club.”

So, on the face of it, all seemed good to go. And yet, in Galway and throughout the province, there were nagging doubts. Most had anticipated either a hungry young coach or, having finally won silverware, an established boss coming to the Sportsground.

Keane, by then 63 years of age, had not held down a major head coach role and had just been overlooked for the top job at the Chiefs. There were fears the move to Galway might be regarded as a pension job. That notion, in fairness, did not do justice to an excellent coaching record but, especially in places like Connacht, you have to sell that idea to a wider audience. But first of all, you have to sell it in the dressing-room.

Keane just never seemed interesting in pushing ‘the brand’. Lam was a master at it, bringing in support for Connacht from the most unlikely places. His passion was infectious and he was full of energy. He put a lot of work into his media duties, Keane was the opposite and there were many cringe broadcast moments.

Players have mixed thoughts on him. A few of the more experienced players, speaking privately before he was shown the door, felt that the squad had a lot to answer for and could and should have delivered more for Keane.

Some others, though, admitted not understanding what direction they were being shown and few of them were impressed by his lack of man management skills.

And yet, few saw his dismissal coming. They might have only won seven league games all season but many of the defeats were tight affairs that could just as easily have been swung the other way.

They were presented with an easy Challenge Cup campaign, three clubs focused on avoiding relegation from their own leagues and, inevitably, they got the wins against Oyonnax, Brive, and Worcester Warriors which secured a home quarter-final against Gloucester.

That 33-28 loss on the last day of March effectively ended their season and may, more than anything else, have convinced the Connacht hierarchy they had made a mistake with the appointment.

The loss emphasised the potential in the squad as they scored some cracking tries but then undid all the good work by conceding some appalling scores.

The build-up also featured a peculiarity. Flanker Sean O’Brien had not been registered for European action as he was injured earlier in the season. But he was back playing good rugby by the time the Challenge Cup quarter-final but, surprisingly, was not registered when they had the opportunity to add three players to the squad.

In the build-up to the Gloucester game there were reports that he had been named in the side announced internally before the error was spotted. His absence was explained as a tactical decision but that defied logic. Whatever the reason, O’Brien played no part in the match despite his good form at the time. That game may have been the catalyst for change and the dye was cast before Saturday’s swash-buckling dismantling of, albeit, an understrength Leinster side.

Keane, for perhaps the first time since he arrived in Galway last August, was full of enthusiasm after the game, talking about the ‘robust’ review of the season which was going to take place with each individual player. He was planned a rigorous preseason campaign and those of us listening to him, who had spent the previous nine months dealing with grumpy behaviour, left enthused by what he was planning.

“We’re going to do it right,” he declared. “Because if we don’t we’ll get caught with our pants down again at the beginning of next season. We don’t want to do that.”

The only problem for Keane is that others had already carried out their own review.

And for all the rhetoric and fanfare of a year ago, Keane was not part of the plan.

The search for his successor will begin in earnest and unless they decided to promote from within, with former Irish U20 coach and current backs coach Nigel Carolan the favourite, another pre-season campaign could be in jeopardy if the new man doesn’t arrive in time.

The list of candidates a year ago wasn’t hectic by all accounts. Back then they were the reigning champions. It is a considerably less appealing job now having just managed not to finish bottom of their conference in the PRO14.

Connacht fans will hope the only way is up.

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