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Adeolokun among the ex-Connacht men involved in Bristol's European success

The likes of Conor McPhillips and John Muldoon have been influential behind the scenes.
Oct 17th 2020, 3:09 PM 13,234 4

GIVEN THAT HE spent most of the lockdown as Bundee Aki’s training partner, it wasn’t a major surprise that Niyi Adeolokun arrived at Bristol in seriously good nick when they signed him on a short-term deal in August.

bristol-celebrate-at-the-final-whistle Adeolokun leaps to celebrate Bristol's success. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

Ireland centre Aki is in the best shape of his career after the hard work of those months without rugby and Adeolokun is clearly reaping the rewards too. Having been part of last night’s Challenge Cup final success against Toulon in France, Adeolokun’s short-term deal with Bristol could hardly have worked out better.

Adeolokun departed Connacht upon the expiry of his contract in June and was briefly without a club but Bristol boss Pat Lam knew all about his qualities. Admitting he was “very surprised” at the once-capped Ireland wing being available, Lam duly snapped him up as injury cover when wing Toby Fricker was sidelined.

Adeolokun has made two Premiership starts since and his four clean linebreaks in a win over Leicester helped him to earn a spot on the bench last night as Bristol deservedly claimed the club’s first European trophy in Aix-en-Provence. 

29-year-old Adeolokun will hope the impression he has made in recent months is enough to secure a permanent deal with Bristol. Either way, a player who Joe Schmidt rated as much for his defensive reads as his searing pace surely won’t be left without a club for the 2020/21 season.

Of course, Adeolokun wasn’t the only man with Connacht or Irish connections involved in Bristol’s success last night.

Director of rugby Lam has been backed by billionaire Bristol owner Steve Lansdown’s wealth since arriving from Connacht in 2017, but it’s also very clear just how united a group Lam has built as the club has been successfully re-branded as the Bears.

pat-lam-facetimes-andy-uren-who-picked-up-an-injury-in-the-week-and-couldnt-travel-to-the-game Lam on a FaceTime call with scrum-half Andy Uren, who was ruled out of the final due to injury. Source: Rogan Thomson/INPHO

Captain Steven Luatua was missing last night due to the impending arrival of his child back in Bristol but spoke gushingly of Lam and Lansdown’s understanding of the situation. Players at the club rave about the sense of family and togetherness that Lam has worked so hard to create.

Having a highly-skilled support staff is vital for any figurehead and Lam is no different. 

Conor McPhillips was a key figure in Connacht’s remarkable run to their 2016 Pro12 glory, delivering the detail in the province’s sensational attack, so it was no surprise that Lam made the former Ireland A international one of his first signings at Bristol.

The Bears are a thrilling and intelligent attacking force and though Lam has clear philosophies in this sense, McPhillips deserves major credit for implementing the plays that have cut defences apart.

Connacht legend John Muldoon joined the Bristol project in 2018 and learned the ropes as defence coach before a move into a new role as forwards coach during the summer, with the Portumna man excitedly taking on additional responsibility. 

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McPhillips and Muldoon are still only 39 and 37, respectively, meaning the best is very much ahead of them in their coaching careers.

conor-mcphillips-and-john-muldoon McPhillips and Muldoon are now part of Lam's coaching team in Bristol. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

An unfortunately-timed injury kept ex-Leinster hooker Bryan Byrne sidelined last night but he has settled in very well with the Bears since signing permanently on a one-year contract in June.

Cork man Peter McCabe wasn’t involved either, having joined on a short-term deal at the same time as Adeolokun, but the 28-year-old former Munster and Connacht loosehead prop has made three Premiership appearances over the past few months.

Off the pitch, Cobh man Kevin Geary has been influential as the head of athletic performance since he arrived from Ulster in 2019, while former Derry footballer and ex-Ulster academy physio Rory Murray has been the Bears’ head of medical services since 2015.

Even at director level, there is an Irish link in the shape of former Ireland assistant coach Mark Tainton, who is now the CEO in Bristol.

There was another ex-Connacht player on the pitch last night in flanker Jake Heenan, who played 40 minutes off the bench. Having originally been brought over to Connacht by Lam in 2013, the New Zealand native qualified to play for Ireland under the residency rule but never fulfilled his Test ambition before Lam lured him to Bristol in 2018.

Former Ireland U20 lock Joe Joyce, one of Bristol’s homegrown crew, started against Toulon last night and his pride was clear to see post-match as he and Lansdown lead the celebrations. 26-year-old second row Joyce remains Irish-qualified.

niyi-adeolokun-and-jake-heenan-celebrate-winning Adeolokun with fellow former Connacht man Jake Heenan. Source: Rogan Thompson/INPHO

There were a couple more former Ireland underage internationals involved in out-half Callum Sheedy – who has now pledged his allegiance to his native Wales – and versatile back Piers O’Conor – who played for the Ireland U19s before being ruled ineligible, something he previously attempted to remedy.

Sheedy only recently underlined the huge influence Ian Madigan had on him during his three-year stint in Bristol before he moved back to Ireland with Ulster.

Madigan would have been among the many rugby folk who watched on last night and took pleasure from seeing Bristol emerge as victors.

Lansdown and Lam are planning for this to simply be the start of the era.

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Murray Kinsella

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