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Henshaw set to return but Connacht have underlined their new depth

The likes of Caolin Blade have given Pat Lam some welcome selection headaches for the coming weeks.

Caolin Blade delivered a promising performance in Bayonne last weekend.
Caolin Blade delivered a promising performance in Bayonne last weekend.
Image: James Crombie/INPHO

ROBBIE HENSHAW, KIERAN Marmion, John Muldoon, Bundee Aki and the rest of Connacht’s front-liners are set to return for tomorrow night’s Pro12 clash with Leinster [KO 19.35], but the past fortnight has shown that Pat Lam’s squad is developing depth.

Back-to-back wins over Bayonne in the Challenge Cup were impressive, particularly the second fixture in France, for which Lam changed his entire XV and handed 20-year-old scrum-half Caolin Blade his first start for the province.

The Galwegians man responded with a superb two-try performance in a dramatic 29-27 victory, while younger players such as Conor Finn, Danny Qualter, James Connolly and Finlay Bealham all stepped up to the mark too.

You make 15 changes and I was being asked or reading that people were giving us no chance, that we weren’t taking the competition seriously,” says Connacht captain John Muldoon. ”There’s bit more to it than that.”

While Connacht’s budget has been boosted this season, Muldoon explains that the province are still not in the realm of chartering flights for this type of European trip.

Indeed, Pat Lam and his players left Galway at 6.30 on Friday morning, flew with Ryanair to Gatwick Airport in London, then on to Bayonne a couple of hours later. The return journey post-match saw Connacht arrive into Galway in the early hours of Sunday morning.

“The performance after all that travel was outstanding and especially seeing the younger guys that people maybe don’t know about stand up is very good,” says Muldoon, who was not part of the squad last weekend.

John Muldoon Muldoon is set to return to the starting XV against Leinster. Source: Donall Farmer/INPHO

“To make 15 changes and still in the hunt in a competition, having a fight-out against Exeter at home [in January] to get that home quarter-final, it’s a great position to be in. We can’t speak more highly of what the lads did when they went over there.

“I think in the past that wouldn’t have happened. It just shows the depth we’re getting in our squad and the belief at the moment. The management have a few headaches this week, but that certainly beats looking at a squad and thinking you don’t have options.”

Chief among the standout displays from Connacht’s less experienced squad members last weekend was that of Blade in the nine shirt. The Ireland U19 international has been impressive at underage levels, and there is great excitement over the Monivea native’s potential.

Blade’s performance didn’t surprise Muldoon in the slightest.

I’ve known Caolin for a few years,” explains the back row, “I’ve been helping coach him at Galwegians and he has a knack for finding the tryline.

“It’s one of those instincts that you can’t teach and he’s a short guy, a stocky little fella, so he’s fairly effective from about two or three yards out.

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“His first try was just great play. A lot of people wouldn’t have seen that he carried the ball into the ruck, popped to Darragh [Leader], Darragh makes the break and Caolin is on his shoulder after picking himself up off the ground.

“That just hows you the desire he had to get on the back of it.”

Robbie Henshaw Henshaw hasn't played for Connacht since October. Source: Donall Farmer/INPHO

Blade did everything in his power to convince Lam that he is ready for a first-ever Pro12 appearance this season, following three in the Challenge Cup in recent weeks. Likewise, Miah Nikora and centre Conor Finn showed up well in the backline.

That said, the big hitters in Robbie Henshaw, Bundee Aki, Mils Muliaina and Marmion are likely to be rolled out for tomorrow’s inter-provincial clash in the RDS.

Much has been made of that quality behind the scrum, and Muldoon admits it’s something of a thrill to have those players in the Connacht group.

“I think that’s been one of our strongest points of the year so far. We’ve got a sprinkling of experience with the likes of Mils and Bundee – even though age-wise he’s quite young, he’s played at a high level for quite long and he’s got a lot of experience of Super Rugby.

Then you’ve got a lot of young lads coming through and there’s a lot of excitement there.

“Our job in the forwards is to produce good ball for those backs. It’s great to see the likes of Danie [Poolman] and Matt Healy scoring tries. It excites you and I think that’s what people who are coming to the Sportsground in the last couple of years are looking for.

“Mils maybe gives them that calm head. He’s still coming back [from injury] and Bundee is still getting used to everything. With a little bit more time and Robbie coming back into the frame this weekend, it should be great.

“Robbie hasn’t played with the lads either, so it should be exciting times. Hopefully it will turn out that way on Friday.”

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