THE ANNOUNCEMENT OF eight Connacht players that will be leaving the province in the summer — as well as the mid-season retirements of Kyle Tonetti and Brett Wilkinson — mean there will be a rake of new faces at the club next season.
The big names to leave are Gavin Duffy and Dan Parks. In Duffy, Connacht are losing a born leader who has played over 250 club games. Parks has scored 1,582 points in the league and earned 67 caps for Scotland. You imagine, or would like to imagine, that Pat Lam will have replacements in mind for the two lads but they will be hard acts to follow.
Miah Nikora has really come on in recent years but Lam may want to bring in an extra out-half to compete with him, Jack Carty and Craig Ronaldson, who also covers midfield. Letting scrum-halves Frank Murphy and Paul O’Donohoe is a bit of a surprise. Murphy, in my time with the club, was always seen as a go-to guy. As a forward, he would leave you in no uncertain terms as to what he wanted you to do. O’Donohoe was amazingly physical and would often be taking down guys twice his size.
The player clearance at The Sportsground is a clear sign of Pat Lam making his mark on the squad he inherited last summer. Connacht brought him over from the far side of the world; they have to back him. He has been given the power to bring in his own players and move others on. If it brings success, brilliant. If not, it falls on his head. That is the risk that every head coach and director of rugby goes into the job knowing. He has the links to clubs back in New Zealand — bringing in the likes of Craig Clarke, Jake Heenan and Bundee Aki — but as long as he mixes that with academy and Irish qualified players then fair play to him. Use every connection you’ve got.
Two signings were also announced this week and I have only seen patches of play from both. Shane O’Leary has been with the Grenoble espoires [academy] and made a few senior appearances this season. Connacht, I’m sure, will have watched him in France and must see him as an adequate replacement for the departing Eoin Griffin. Ian Porter is down the pecking order at Ulster but will hopefully be a good deputy to Kieran Marmion.
Next season could see Ireland U20 players Sean O’Brien and Rory Molony break through but you can be sure that the senior lads won’t make it easy for them to take a jersey. The likes of Mick Kearney and Michael Swift won’t let them into too many line-out drills in training but they might let them in for a few tackling drills.
It looks as though the quest for a Heineken Cup space will be unsuccessful and even if they finish seventh — their highest finish ever — Zebre or Treviso will get the final slot as an Italian team needs to qualify. There has been far too much wrangling to go back and argue the merits of whether a team finishing second last should get a spot.
Since Lam has taken the helm, there has been an improvement in the style of Connacht’s play. They are not afraid to have a go this season; when it’s on, it’s on. The execution of skills still needs to be sharpened. A lot of talk from the squad this season has been ‘when we click it’ll work out’. That is a sign that the players are buying into Lam’s methods.
Some of Connacht’s attacking play has been the best I have seen in a long time. Matt Healy’s try against Munster, straight off the scrum and a first phase play, was excellent. You can see the game-plan is taking shape but I can’t imagine that is it. Lam will add more to it and develop that running game, and plays, over the summer.
@adrianflavin played 159 times for Connacht between 2006 and 2013 and earned two Ireland Wolfhounds caps.