Last season was a momentous one for Connacht in many respects, but full-back Gavin Duffy maintains they can achieve even more in the RaboDirect PRO12 this campaign with what he describes as their strongest-ever squad.
For the first time in their history Connacht experienced the thrill of Heineken Cup rugby and took the prized scalp of Harlequins, the eventual English champions.
They also achieved their highest ever league placing of eighth and their good form was rewarded at the end of the season with four players, including Duffy, touring New Zealand with Ireland and a further four heading to South Africa with the Under-20s for the Junior World Championship.
But with the likes of fly-half Dan Parks, flanker Willie Faloon and centre Danie Poolman arriving at the Sportsground this summer and another dose of Heineken Cup rugby assured by Leinster’s victory in the competition, Duffy is confident they can surpass last season’s achievements.
He said: “This is definitely the strongest squad since I have been involved.
“There’s real strength in depth everywhere you look. You have got three guys arriving at the club who have played at the very top of the game and the standard of the players coming out of the academy is the best it has ever been.
“We had four guys go to the Junior World Championship with Ireland Under-20s and there were a couple of other guys who nearly went.
“We made a good start to the RaboDirect PRO12 last year but we had a poor patch either side of Christmas although we still managed to finish eighth. That’s our highest-ever finish and the aim is to be even more competitive next season.
“It was a tough season at times. We were not getting results and we asked some tough questions of ourselves and we were delighted to finish the season winning three of our last four games.”
With only three of the four Irish provinces automatically qualifying for the Heineken Cup, Connacht will have their work cut out to elbow aside either of last season’s finalists Leinster or Ulster or traditional powerhouses Munster.
But rather than bemoan their comparative lack of resources, Duffy maintains Connacht can be dragged along by the other Irish provinces’ success.
“The challenge for us is that the three other Irish provinces are among the top five teams in Europe,” he said.
“We have to constantly improve as a team to keep up with them. The key thing is the consistency, that’s what those other teams have that we maybe lack.
“I think it is brilliant for the whole game in Ireland. Munster kickstarted that run and Leinster now have picked it up and taken it forward themselves, with Ulster pushing them hard.
“If we can match them then we know we must be doing something right.
“They are a bit farther down the track down we are but we have made some really positive additions to the squad and our record over the last couple of seasons shows we are heading in the right direction.”
Perhaps the ultimate indication Eric Elwood has them on the right path is demonstrated by the fact that Duffy, Mike McCarthy, Brett Wilkinson and Ronan Loughney were part of Declan Kidney’s touring party to New Zealand.
While they all face tall orders to make the shirts their own – none more so than Duffy who has to contend with ERC Player of the Year Rob Kearney – the 30-year-old is still confident of kicking on.
“I managed to get the call-up to New Zealand,” Duffy said. “I knew I was there or thereabouts so I just need to push on this year and get the shirt.
“There were four guys from Connacht out there and that was unheard of not so long ago. It is not just myself, there are other guys at Connacht who are desperate to play for Ireland and we know if we play well then we will be noticed.
“I was back two weeks ago and most of the others are back. You have targets to come back in shape and if you don’t then you are looking at punishment. Most of the boys kept themselves ticking over in the off-season so they have come back in good shape and are quickly progressing through the conditioning.”