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Dublin: 7°C Wednesday 14 April 2021

Connacht can lean on 2015/16 template for inspiration

The province won their first ever trophy in a year where the post-World Cup fallout hit others hardest.

Andy Friend speaks to his players during a training session.
Andy Friend speaks to his players during a training session.
Image: James Crombie/INPHO

THE LAST TIME an Ireland rugby team returned disappointed from a Rugby World Cup, it coincided with the greatest season in Connacht Rugby’s 131 year history.

That was not a coincidence, and current head coach Andy Friend will be hoping his squad can lean on some of the same advantages that served Pat Lam so well four years ago.

Look back at that Connacht team that won the 2015-16 Guinness Pro12, and you will not find a squad littered with international talent.

The province contributed just two players to Joe Schmidt’s squad for the 2015 World Cup – Nathan White and a 22-year-old Robbie Henshaw. As a result, Connacht didn’t suffer the same level of disruption that hit so many of the other Pro12 teams, not least their rival Irish provinces. Leinster had 16 players in that original Ireland squad, Ulster had seven and Munster six.

While the majority of the traditional top teams lost their key men to the World Cup for the bulk of three months, almost all of Connacht’s players were in camp working with Lam, essentially getting a head start on the season. Those players also knew that when the World Cup was over, there wouldn’t be a bundle of players coming back to take their place in the team.

Four years later and Friend has been presented with the same opportunity, with Bundee Aki and Jack Carty – who are both included in the squad to face Leinster on Friday – the only two players he lost during the World Cup window.

Like 2015, this has allowed Connacht to build momentum. Instead of desperately awaiting the return of their Ireland internationals, Friend can instead slowly reintegrate them into a winning team. Carty starts at out-half against Leinster, while Aki has to settle for a place on the bench, with Friend happy to go with a midfield partnership of Peter Robb and Tom Farrell.

pat-lam-speaks-to-his-team Pat Lam addresses the dressing room after Connacht's historic Pro12 win in 2016. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

After losing to Scarlets on the opening weekend, Connacht head into the first inter-provincial derby of the season on the back of a four-game winning streak (this time last year they had lost four from eight). Compare that to 2015, where Connacht won seven of their opening eight fixtures, including a first win at Thomond Park in the professional era. They subsequently lost six of their remaining 14 matches, but the good work done at the start of the season had put them in a strong enough position to finish second in the table.

Can this Connacht team follow suit? Friday’s game is the first real test of their season, but it won’t make or break their ambitions. Leinster’s strength in depth will see them remain clear favourites to win back to back Pro14 titles, but there are many teams already dealing with more pressing problems than Connacht.

Ulster, another squad in the middle of a rebuilding process, are adjusting to life without long-serving captain Rory Best, and in Munster Joey Carbery’s ankle injury remains something of a mystery. 

Elsewhere in Connacht’s conference, Scarlets had nine players in Wales’ match-day squad for their World Cup semi-final defeat to South Africa. There were 10 Edinburgh players in Scotland’s 31-man squad. 

In Friend, Connacht have a coach who boasts many of the same characteristics which made Lam such a popular figure at The Sportsground. Like Lam, he has encouraged his team to play an open, attacking game. Now in his second season as head coach – Lam was in his third when Connacht won the Pro12 – the environment he has created quickly lifted the gloom that clouded the squad following the dismal season under Kieran Keane.

Keane lasted less than 10 months out west after taking on the difficult task of filling Lam’s boots in 2017. During his sole season in charge, it didn’t take long for rumours of player unrest to seep out of the camp. Connacht went on to lose 14 of their 21 Pro14 games, and exited the European Challenge Cup in the quarter-finals. 

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Friend is cut from a different cloth. The Australian has made a noticeable effort to embrace his new surroundings since arrive in summer 2018, and a quick scan of his Twitter timeline shows he makes plenty of time to get out and see some of the stunning scenery in Connacht and beyond. He has spoken of long-term planning, underlining the importance of bringing through talent from a Connacht Academy system he refers to as the “vegetable patch.”

He has shown himself to be friendly, communicative and honest in his dealings with the media, and that public face appears to be genuine, as any whispers of discontent among the playing group quickly died down when he took the reins.

kieran-keane Kieran Keane only lasted one season at Connacht. Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

Last year’s successful bid to qualify for the Champions Cup only boosted the feel-good factor.

Yet it would be wrong to suggest all is rosy at the province. Kieran Marmion, overlooked by Joe Schmidt for the World Cup, starts on the bench against Leinster amid reports he is seeking a new challenge. Aki, whose contract expires at the end of the current season, has also been the subject of rumours of a move away from The Sportsground. Friend will be keen to keep the focus on the pitch.

Lam too faced these challenges four years ago. Midway through the season it was confirmed that star centre Robbie Henshaw would join Leinster in the summer. Instead of downing tools, the player remained a key component in the team as Connacht went on to beat his future employers in the Pro12 Grand Final at Murrayfield. 

Connacht’s unity ended up being one of their stand-out attributes that season. Ireland’s 2016 Six Nations game against Italy marked the first time Connacht had five players on the pitch representing Ireland.

This time around, Friend’s group will relish the challenge of Europe, but injuries to Gavin Thornbury and Quinn Roux leave them facing an uphill battle. Yet the prospect of reaching the knock-out rounds of the Pro14 will be firmly on their radar.

The foundations are already in place. Connacht comfortably have the best defensive record of any team in Conference B this season, conceding the least tries (nine) and total points (64) across their opening five games, while they are also the joint try-scorers (18, level with Munster and Benetton). 

If anything, reaching the knock-out stages of the competition is easier than it was in that 2015-16 season. Back then, the top four teams in the table went straight into the semi-finals, whereas now a top three finish in Conference B would see Connacht through to the quarter-finals. They reached the knock-out stages last year despite winning only 12 of their 21 regular season games.

Get into those knock-out games and anything can happen. Connacht don’t need to look to far back for inspiration.

We thought there might be a post-World Cup comedown, but then Saracens went and Saracened. Andy Dunne joins Sean Farrell and Gavan Casey as the pod segues from the international to club season.

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