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Simon Hick column: Connacht prove the west's awake with headline grabbing signings

Pat Lam has shown he means business with his latest business.

Image: James Crombie/INPHO

THERE ARE A few ways to keep rugby on a roll in Connacht; academy systems, crowd numbers, television, finance, European Cup qualification, and big name signings.

With Mils Muliaina, Bundee Aki, Robbie Henshaw and Kieran Marmion all lining out in Galway next season it will be the first time since the days of Geoghegan and Jim Staples that they’ll have as exciting a backline as the other three provinces.

Rob Penney suggested that the Muliaina signing may hold back young Irish talent, which is in line with the views of a lot of fans around the country, but Leinster, Ulster and Munster only made their breakthroughs with the help of some brilliant foreign players.

Every team needs a kickstart, and Connacht’s ambitions off the field merely reflect the fact that in the next few years, if they’re to survive, they’ll have to start finishing ahead of other Irish teams in the Celtic League. With Scotland and Italy guaranteed one side in Europe, and with fewer Rabo Pro slots available overall, Connacht are now up against the other Irish provinces as much as they are against those from other countries, which partially explains Penney’s comments yesterday.

Pat Lam says Connacht’s player budget wasn’t increased, but either way they reportedly outbid Leinster and Munster for Bundee Aki (the best centre currently on the market according to Bernard Jackman), which is maybe the most interesting part of this whole chapter — either they have put all their cash in the Aki/Muliaina basket, the IRFU are guiding things, or Leinster and Munster don’t have much spare cash.

Bundee Aki celebrates Source: Photosport/Mark Taylor/INPHO

Connacht are still adrift of the big three in terms of crowd numbers, success on the field and finance but in relative terms the four provinces have never been closer in standard.

Having at one point looked like they could be a dominant force in Europe for a decade, Leinster have now slipped to the point where they may be the third best Irish team next year. O’Driscoll, Sexton and Leo Cullen are gone, and their only big signing in the last two years was Zane Kirchener at fullback, who so far hasn’t got picked in the big games.

Its difficult to judge what sort of job Matt O’Connor has done this year; they are consistent and dogged and defiant and direct, but this is also the most conservative side the province have produced. It doesn’t seem possible that skill levels would peak and trough depending on who the coach is but if you were to judge them on the Toulon and Ulster performances then you would have to conclude there is a problem in this area.

Ulster now have the best stadium, the best recruitment strategy, and the smartest director of rugby, but still lack self belief and until they win something will not consider themselves proper heavy hitters. For all the improvements they have made, the pressure will only increase if they don’t win the Rabo Pro this year.

Of the four, Munster are the most difficult to judge. Apparently adding more strings to their bow and building something very different to anything seen in the province before now, yet losing the coaches and one of the key players (Casey Laulala) that defined this period. Anthony Foley inherits a side that have made two European Cup semis in a row, but he may also have to completely restructure the backline play next season.

Connacht know they will only be given a few years to bridge the gap to the big three, but they also know that the big three have major flaws at the moment. Tradition, fan numbers and playing populations are all factors they’ve to overcome, but the Western Force (Perth, Australia) are a good example of how quickly things can change.

They’ve only produced one Western Australia born professional rugby player, are usually bottom of the Super Rugby table, and didnt exist until 2006 but this season they’re arguably the best side in Australia, have their own superstar Nick Cummins, they’re getting bigger crowds than the NSW Waratahs and have a real shot at making the playoffs. It can be done.

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