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The Connacht depth chart: Andy Friend's 43-man senior squad

The western province have several new faces in their squad ahead of next month’s restart.

SQUAD DEPTH LOOKS like being more important than ever with the resumption of rugby in Ireland now less than four weeks away.

The four provinces are due to complete their 2019/20 campaigns before heading directly into the new 2020/21 season – which will involve an extended Test window from October all the way into December – meaning the need for options in every position is clear.

Over the coming days, The42 will outline how the provinces’ senior squads are shaping up as they continue with pre-season training ahead of the return of the Pro14 on 22 and 23 August.

We start with Andy Friend’s 43-man Connacht squad.

Included in brackets after each player’s name is their age and number of Connacht caps in the format [age, caps]. Players have been listed by number of caps.

Loosehead prop

Denis Buckley [29, 178]
Matthew Burke [23, 15]
Paddy McAllister [30, 10]
Jordan Duggan [22, uncapped]

denis-buckley-makes-a-break Buckley is heading for 200 Connacht caps. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Denis Buckley has become a genuine stalwart for Connacht since his debut in 2011 and despite never getting the Test recognition may supporters feel he has deserved, he remains a key man for the western province.

The experienced Paddy McAllister started the 2019/20 season strongly after his move from Gloucester before a knee injury sidelined him for two months. The 30-year-old will be intent on pushing for first-choice loosehead status.

Ballinrobe man Matthew Burke will hope to add to his single senior start in the new season, while Connacht will be aiming to help academy graduate Jordan Duggan fulfil the impressive potential he showed for Ireland at U20 level.

Hooker

Dave Heffernan [29, 129]
Shane Delahunt [26, 77]
Jonny Murphy [28, 5]

Dave Heffernan enjoyed an excellent 2019/20 season that saw him brought into Andy Farrell’s Ireland set-up, his first formal involvement since making his debut in 2017 against the US.

Heffernan will be aiming to resume his dynamic form in the months ahead, but 26-year-old Shane Delahunt will have his own plans for pushing into the starting hooker slot. The Birr man was briefly on Joe Schmidt’s Ireland radar back in 2018.

Meanwhile, former Ulster hooker Jonny Murphy will be eager to feature more prominently after being limited to just five appearances over the last two seasons with the province.

Tighthead prop

Finlay Bealham [28, 141]
Dominic Robertson-McCoy [26, 53]
Conor Kenny [23, 6]
Jack Aungier [21, uncapped]

finlay-bealham-and-joe-simpson-14122019 Finlay Bealham will be hoping to impress Andy Farrell. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

28-year-old Finlay Bealham remains the obvious first-choice at tighthead and, similarly to Buckley, has been a reliable presence for Connacht since his 2014 debut. Capped nine times by Ireland, he will have goals of returning to the international fold.

Ireland-qualified Dominic Robertson-McCoy has racked up more than 50 appearances with the province in his four seasons and continues to improve. 23-year-old Conor Kenny will be targeting a first-ever senior start for the province in the season ahead.

Meanwhile, Connacht have high hopes that 21-year-old Jack Aungier will make an impact after his move from the Leinster academy. The former Ireland U20 tighthead made five senior appearances for Leinster last season and has shifted west planning to feature even more prominently. 

Second row

Quinn Roux [29, 100]
Ultan Dillane [26, 95]
Gavin Thornbury [26, 38]
Niall Murray [20, 5]
Oisin Dowling [23, uncapped]

In Quinn Roux, Ultan Dillane and Gavin Thornbury, Connacht have an excellent trio of frontline locks when all fully fit. Unfortunately, a hand injury means it appears Roux will miss the resumption of rugby next month.

Roux is Connacht’s only proven top-level tighthead lock. Having grown as a leader in recent years, improved in his lineout calling, and delivered consistently strong performances, he looks like being a key man again when he recovers.

One of Dillane or Thornbury may be tasked with scrummaging on the tighthead side when Roux is absent, but both are more traditional loosehead locks. Having returned to the Ireland fold this year, Dillane looks rejuvenated while the talented Thornbury will be keen to avoid the injuries that have stymied his career so far.

23-year-old Oisin Dowling has joined from Leinster in search of more game time and has experience of scrummaging on the tighthead side too. He is currently undergoing rehabilitation for a long-term back injury.

The promising Roscommon man Niall Murray, still only 20, has graduated from the academy after making five senior appearances last season and will continue to learn the ropes as he develops physically. Blindside flanker Cillian Gallagher is another possible second row option.

Back row

Eoghan Masterson [27, 90]
Jarrad Butler [29, 55]
Sean O’Brien [25, 57]
Paul Boyle [23, 39]
Cillian Gallagher [22, 15]
Sean Masterson [22, 2]
Abraham Papali’i [27, 0]
Conor Oliver [24, 0] 

abraham-papalii Abraham Papali'i is an interesting addition for Connacht. Source: Photosport/Andrew Cornaga/INPHO

Getting the back row balance spot on will be an important task for Friend and co. as they look to find the right combination between their more experienced players and some new faces.

Captain Jarrad Butler has done a good job moving from his more ‘natural’ openside role to number eight very often over the last two seasons, although Connacht have added a new figure to compete for the slot at the back of the scrum.

Former rugby league player Abraham Papali’i is very much a project for Connacht. He has the size and power to impact as a ball-carrier but Friend will need him to show real improvements in his conditioning and decision-making to nail down a starting spot.

Wexford man Paul Boyle also has lots of number eight experience under his belt but can play across the back row.

Competition for the blindside flanker spot looks strong, particularly with the impressive Sean O’Brien due to be back in the mix in September after essentially missing all of last season through injury.

Conor Oliver, a new signing from Munster, is a pure openside and will hope for the kind of exposure that would allow him to recapture the form he showed during Rassie Erasmus’ time in charge of the southern province.

Academy graduate Sean Masterson is like several of the other Connacht back rows – including his older brother, Eoghan – in having played in all three positions, leaving Friend with lots of possible combinations. 22-year-old blindside Gallagher still has lots of room for growth as a player too.

Scrum-half 

Kieran Marmion [28, 166]
Caolin Blade [26, 111]
Stephen Kerins [24, 8]
Colm Reilly [20, 0]

This feels like a big season in Kieran Marmion’s career after World Cup disappointment and injury in 2019/20. He will be keen to get a firm grip on the first-choice slot in Connacht and work his way back into the Ireland squad.

But the ever-improving Caolin Blade will be fighting every inch of the way having developed into a leader for the province and getting a brief taste of Ireland camp along the way. 

Sligo product Stephen Kerins showed his sniping ability in glimpses last season, while 20-year-old Colm Reilly steps up from the academy – having given Ireland U20 followers a taste of what he can do with a crucial try in last year’s Grand Slam-clinching win over Wales.

Out-half

Jack Carty [27, 139]
Conor Fitzgerald [22, 23]
Conor Dean [22, 1]

conor-fitzgerald Conor Fitzgerald made excellent progress last season. Source: Connacht Rugby/INPHO

Frustratingly for Jack Carty, he was really getting going in terms of form when rugby was put on hold. He suffered the disappointment of losing his place in the Ireland squad after last year’s World Cup and admitted to struggling for form back with Connacht too.

While Carty will be a vital figure for Connacht moving forward, 22-year-old Conor Fitzgerald certainly applied pressure with his good performances last season. The former Munster academy man still has lots to learn, of course, but showed off a fine kicking game and a calm head in 2019/20.

Third in the pecking order at out-half for Connacht now is academy graduate Conor Dean, who made his senior debut against Munster back in the 2018/19 season but hasn’t had an appearance since. Friend will hope to see him echo Fitzgerald’s development. 

Centre

Bundee Aki [30, 99]
Tom Farrell [26, 57]
Peter Robb [25, 44]
Tom Daly [26, 24]
Sammy Arnold [24, 0]

The midfield looks like being very competitive for Connacht in the months ahead, particularly if their five centres can stay injury-free for long spells.

Bundee Aki is one of the first names on the team sheet but he will once again have consistent Ireland commitments, meaning the other four centres are all likely to be hoping for plenty of minutes.

26-year-old Tom Farrell will be aiming to get back to his best after the injury frustrations of last season, while powerful Ireland-capped Sammy Arnold decided to make the move from Munster in search of more consistent game time.

Tom Daly has delivered for Connacht whenever called upon and provides another good option, while 25-year-old Peter Robb is coming off what was his best season yet for Connacht. As the explosive Robb – currently on the way back from a thigh injury – looks to continue the development of his passing and offloading game, he’s one to watch.

Back three

Tiernan O’Halloran [29, 182]
Matt Healy [31, 137]
Stephen Fitzgerald [24, 18]
John Porch [26, 17]
Ben O’Donnell [24, 0]
Peter Sullivan [22, 0]
Alex Wootton [26, 0]

alex-wootton Alex Wootton has joined on loan from Munster. Source: Connacht Rugby/INPHO

The most capped Connacht player in the squad, 29-year-old Tiernan O’Halloran is an experienced head who quietly continues to improve as a fullback and is the obvious starter in the number 15 shirt again.

31-year-old wing Matt Healy, the province’s record try scorer, is the other experienced figure in the back three options and will be keen to display that his finishing prowess remains undiminished after a relatively stop-start 2019/20.

Former Aussie 7s player John Porch was one of Connacht’s better players last season, impressing on the wing and even starting a game at fullback, and head coach Friend will be hoping for similar from another Australian plucked from the same source in new signing Ben O’Donnell.

Stephen Fitzgerald – another option on the wing or at 15 – won’t be back in team training from his knee injury until October, meaning O’Donnell, Peter Sullivan, and Alex Wootton will be motivated to make an early-season impact.

22-year-old Sullivan has earned a contract after impressing with Lansdowne in the AIL and then with the Connacht Eagles, while Wootton has joined on loan from Munster and brings Champions Cup experience with him. 

Academy:

Connacht’s academy currently includes 16 youngsters but the province said there may be additional players added in the coming months.

Year 3 hooker Dylan Tierney-Martin, fullback Oran McNulty, centre Seán O’Brien, and back row Joshua Dunne will be among those pushing for senior exposure.

Having had last season wiped out by an Achilles tendon rupture, back three prospect Colm de Buitléar remains part of the academy too and will hope to add to his four senior caps.

Year 1:

Donnacha Byrne [back row]
Ciaran Booth [back row]
Hubert Costello [back row]
Eoin de Buitléar [hooker]
Cathal Forde [out-half]
Darragh Murray [second row]
Cian Prendergast [second row/back row]
Charlie Ward [loosehead prop] 

Year 2:

Declan Adamson [hooker]
Shane Jennings [centre]
Oisin McCormack [back row]

Year 3:

Colm de Buitléar [back three]
Joshua Dunne [back row]
Oran McNulty [back three]
Seán O’Brien [centre]
Dylan Tierney-Martin [hooker].

- This article was updated at 10.55am on 4 August to indicate that Jack Aungier joined from the Leinster academy.

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About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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