Connacht on the right track after return to Final Series

Joe Leavey
17 June 2019

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Underestimate Connacht at your peril – it’s a dictum that Andy Friend’s side bolded up, italicised and underlined this season in the Guinness PRO14.

After winning it all in 2016, an eighth place and then sixth in Conference A in the intervening years had few backing them to reach the Final Series, but they proceeded to prove all naysayers wrong this time around with a stirring season of plucky performances.

Although they could not quite replicate the feats of that side three years ago, a third-place finish in a stacked Conference A and a quarter-final appearance represents marked improvement from the outfit, and indication that they are certainly on the right tracks heading into the new campaign.

Key strengths

While Connacht possess a pack of impressive power, it is the backfield where they are truly blessed.

Nominations for the Guinness PRO14 Team of the Year are evidence of that: five Connacht men were shortlisted, four of them backs.

Caolin Blade and Jack Carty formed a wonderful half-back duo, while the same can be said of Bundee Aki and Tom Farrell in the centres – with 168 carries, 30 offloads and 44 defenders beaten across the season, the latter may well be the emerald in the Connacht crown.

Areas to improve

There was very little that Connacht did badly this year.

Solid across the board – a fact borne out in the numbers – Connacht were one of only two teams in the Guinness PRO14 who didn’t finish bottom in a single major statistical category.

In order to truly maximise on the potential of their thrilling backs, however, next season they will no doubt look to hold onto the ball for greater periods.

Averaging out at 18:18 minutes of ball-in-hand throughout the season, only Benetton – of the sides that reached the Final Series – had a lower figure.

Star moment

While their season ultimately ended in hurt at the Kingspan Stadium, the side from Galway can instead cast their minds back to October, and a much fonder trip to Belfast.

One of rugby’s unhappiest of hunting grounds in living memory, Connacht had not won away at Ulster since November 1960 – almost 58 years by the time they pulled up for their inter-pro clash.

Stacking the odds further in favour of the hosts was Connacht’s unenviable record on the road in all-Irish match-ups, so when Tiernan O’Halloran crossed after just five minutes, hopes that they could seal only their second away inter-pro win in 16 years were stirred.

And their chances were reinforced when Andrew Brace awarded the visitors a penalty try to put them 12 points to the good with the game a quarter old.

Though Ulster did offer something of a fightback through Jacob Stockdale, Matty Rea’s red card immediately after the break left gaps for Connacht to exploit, and when Bundee Aki charged in from 40 metres out with less than ten minutes remaining, history was made.

Breakout player

If Tom Farrell’s first full season at Connacht laid the foundations, his second built an emerald mansion.

Arriving from Bedford Blues in January 2017 after crossing the Irish Sea having struggled for opportunities at Leinster as a youngster, it was hard to know what to expect from the centre.

But this year truly did catapult the 25-year-old from relative obscurity onto the world stage, his numbers in the Guinness PRO14 enough to see him called up to Ireland’s squad for the Guinness Six Nations.

Nigh-on an ever-present for his province, his six tries in 17 appearances tell only a small portion of the story, with imperious statistics for carries, offloads and defenders beaten all among the top 20 of all players in the competition – Farrell proved himself a nightmare to opposition defences throughout the season.

Key man

While Farrell could certainly lay claim to this mantle as well, Jack Carty – who must also receive a nod for his strides forward as a player – has become Connacht’s go-to.

Four tries and 157 points in total for the season, Carty’s goal-kicking has come on leaps and bounds as he slotted 78.57 percent of his efforts, showing notable range in the process.

It’s a part of his skillset that so often comes in handy in the crunch, too: 285 kicks in play ranked him third overall in the Guinness PRO14, constantly relieving pressure, starting attacks and dictating the play.

His passing can also be breath-taking, including setting up one attack in the quarter-final at Ulster with a beautiful wide pass to Matt Healy.

A word also for back-row pair Colby Faingaa and Jarrad Butler. The pair were simply outstanding and went some way to filling the gap left by retired legend John Muldoon.

Who’s in?

After a season of renewed success, Andy Friend has wasted no time in rolling the dice in search of the next step.

Eleven players brought in, five of them promoted from the side’s fruitful academy, the scouting staff at the Sportsground have been busy identifying an array of talent.

In comes Australian sevens flyer John Porch, with whom Friend worked on the sevens circuit, while Stephen Fitzgerald’s move from Munster was made permanent in April.

The likes of Paddy McAllister, Rory Burke and Tom Daly will provide invaluable depth to a squad that has truly taken shape over the last 12 months.

Perhaps the biggest outlay, however, comes in the shape of the aforementioned stadium, as Connacht were granted permission for a widescale redevelopment of their historic ground.

Who’s out?

With so many arrivals, there had to be departures to balance the scales in Galway.

It’s eleven in, eleven out for Connacht, chief among them talented winger Cian Kelleher, who returns to Leinster after three seasons out west, the move going through after it was announced back in January.

Elsewhere, Eoin Griffin and Conor McKeon retired, while Conor Carey’s move to Worcester Warriors confirmed, and five more were released, James Mitchell and Craig Ronaldson among them.

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