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The Connacht depth chart: A new Tongan lock and dealing with Buckley injury

Andy Friend has a 43-man senior squad coming into the new season.

WHILE THERE IS a new-look coaching team around him ahead of the 2021/22 season, Connacht head coach Andy Friend is hoping to see a fairly settled playing squad push on to the next level.

Friend’s men will be aiming to feature in the United Rugby Championship play-offs, as well as advancing beyond Leicester and Stade Français in the Heineken Champions Cup.

Having looked at Munster’s depth chart yesterday, here we detail Friend’s 43-man senior 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 in the order of their number of caps.

Loosehead prop

Denis Buckley [31, 200]
Matthew Burke [24, 23]
Jordan Duggan [23, 13]
Greg McGrath [24, 0]

jordan-duggan Jordan Duggan showed his promise last season. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

200-cap man Denis Buckley remains a key figure for Connacht, with his long-term knee injury a major concern heading into the new campaign. Buckley is set to be sidelined until the end of this year meaning others will be required to step up.

Paddy McAllister was an experienced back-up last season but is now retired from pro rugby, meaning 24-year-old Matthew Burke and 23-year-old Jordan Duggan will need to take on far greater responsibility.

Duggan made 13 appearances in his first pro campaign last season and Connacht believe he has plenty more potential.

Greg McGrath has joined from Leinster and while he has played more at tighthead in recent times, his ability to also play on the loosehead side of the scrum gives Connacht another option here. Former Ireland U20 international Charlie Ward is in his second year with the province’s academy.


Dave Heffernan [30, 143]
Shane Delahunt [27, 100]
Jonny Murphy [29, 15]
Dylan Tierney-Martin [22, 1]

dave-heffernan-celebrates Dave Heffernan has been part of the Ireland set-up in recent seasons. Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

30-year-old Dave Heffernan has remained part of the Ireland set-up, with Andy Farrell appreciating his dynamic play around the pitch, but he will continue to battle with Shane Delahunt for first-choice status in Connacht.

Delahunt is a skillful hooker who has a handy knack for picking out slivers of space around the ruck. His competition with Heffernan is a positive for the province.

Jonny Murphy added nine more Connacht replacement appearances to his record last season but has yet to make a start for the province in his two seasons in Galway.

Meanwhile, 22-year-old Dylan Tierney-Martin has stepped up onto a senior contract after making his debut last season and Friend will hope to see him pushing for starts during this campaign. 

Tighthead prop

Finlay Bealham [29, 159]
Dominic Robertson-McCoy [27, 68]
Jack Aungier [22, 14]
Sam Illo [20, 0]

finlay-bealham Finlay Bealham is the main man at tighthead. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

As with Buckley at loosehead, Finlay Bealham is a stalwart on the tighthead side, where his set-piece, contact, and handling skills make him first-choice.

The Irish-qualified Dominic Robertson-McCoy has provided steady back-up and improved his impact in collisions since joining in 2016 but hasn’t been able to really press for Bealham’s starting spot.

After making 14 appearances in his first season after joining from Leinster, the 22-year-old Jack Aungier will be intent on doing exactly that. His skillset is impressive, while the 120kg prop’s carrying is dynamic.

With Conor Kenny having joined Newcastle, 20-year-old Sam Illo has signed for Connacht after coming through the Leinster pipeline with Wesley College and Old Wesley RFC before shining for the Ireland U20s last summer. He will hope for his first exposure to pro rugby this season.

Second row

Ultan Dillane [27, 113]
Gavin Thornbury [27, 62]
Niall Murray [21, 18]
Oisin Dowling [24, 7]
Leva Fifita [32, 0]

leva-fifita New signing Leva Fifita. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

Connacht have lost the experience, leadership, and power of Ireland international Quinn Roux after his move to Toulon during the summer, with the province signing Tonga’s Leva Fifita to fill that hole in their squad.

Fifita worked with new forwards coach Dewald Senekal in Grenoble and will hope to bring his size and physicality to bear, as well as offering a few offloads.

Ultan Dillane and Gavin Thornbury are now senior figures in this Connacht squad, with the latter having been particularly impressive last season. Thornbury was unlucky to miss out on possible Ireland selection for their July Tests due to injury.

Oisin Dowling only managed to make seven appearances last season having been injured when he joined from Leinster in 2020 so he will be keen to have an injury-free run, while the 21-year-old Niall Murray made great progress in 2020/21 after adding mass to his very athletic frame.

Back row

Eoghan Masterson [28, 111]
Jarrad Butler [30, 74]
Paul Boyle [24, 53]
Conor Oliver [25, 20] 
Abraham Papali’i [28, 14]
Sean Masterson [23, 12]
Cian Prendergast [21, 10]

abraham-papalii Abraham Papali'i is a powerful back row presence. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Connacht have gone from eight senior back rows last season to seven for the upcoming season following the injury-enforced retirements of Sean O’Brien and Cillian Gallagher.

21-year-old Cian Prendergast, who was impressive over 10 appearances last season, has deservedly been promoted from the academy and is a back row of rich potential, while also covering the second row.

Number eight Abraham Papali’i is the most intriguing back row in the Connacht squad given his ability to transform their game with his power and offloading when fit and firing. However, three red cards for high tackles in his first season mean he simply must be more disciplined in 2021/22.

Captain Jarrad Butler, who is Irish-qualified, will once again be a key figure through his leadership and impactful work-rate, while 24-year-old Paul Boyle ended last season by winning his first Ireland cap.

Eoghan Masterson is a highly experienced and consistent performer, while his younger brother Sean will be aiming to bring more of his abrasive, explosive play to the mix as he puts injury frustrations behind him.

Finally, Conor Oliver enjoyed a strong first season with the province after joining from Munster and is always a combative influence with good breakdown skills. 

Friend will hope to avoid major injury issues in the back row but his academy options – Oisin McCormack, Ciaran Booth, Hubert Costello, and Donnacha Byrne – will all naturally be hoping to get a chance to show their potential. 


Kieran Marmion [29, 187]
Caolin Blade [27, 132]
Colm Reilly [22, 6]

caolin-blade Caolin Blade is now an Ireland international. Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

Caolin Blade is another Connacht player whose 2020/21 season concluded with a fully deserved first Ireland cap and the Monivea man will very much be looking to pick up where he left off.

His outstanding form has resulted in a brilliant battle for the number nine shirt with the experienced Kieran Marmion, who has his own ambitions of breaking back into the Ireland mix.

Connacht are in good shape with two strong frontline nines, while the 22-year-old Colm Reilly will be aiming to build on the promise he showed last season.

Stephen Kerins has departed the province to join Ealing Trailfinders, meaning new academy recruit Will Reilly, an Ireland U20 international, is fourth in this depth chart. 


Jack Carty [29, 159]
Conor Fitzgerald [23, 38]

jack-carty Carty had interest from abroad but stayed with Connacht. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

With Conor Dean having been released at the end of last season, Connacht head into the new campaign with just two senior out-halves.

New signing Mack Hansen can cover the position but is predominantly a back three player, while centre Tom Daly has also slotted into out-half on occasion.

Friend will be hoping for lots of luck with injury in this area, although there may be scope for academy out-half Cathal Forde to gain experience after impressing for the Ireland U20s during the summer, albeit mainly at inside centre.

Jack Carty extended his Connacht contract for one year despite interest from abroad and is determined to win more Ireland caps. At his best, he is uniquely creative and offers a superb kicking game so Carty will look for major consistency this season.

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Conor Fitzgerald, six years Carty’s junior, has made huge strides since being released from the Munster academy and joining Connacht. His kicking game continues to improve and he will hope to press for first-choice status again.


Bundee Aki [31, 112]
Tom Farrell [27, 61]
Tom Daly [28, 48]
Peter Robb [27, 47]
Sammy Arnold [25, 16]
Shayne Bolton [21, 0]

tom-daly-and-marcel-van-der-merwe Tom Daly makes a carry against London Irish last weekend. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

This is one area where Connacht should have plenty of depth, even if injuries can ruin best-laid plans. Academy centre Sean O’Brien’s departure to Exeter was greeted with disappointment following a good run of form last season but the western province have brought in Irish-qualified prospect Shayne Bolton from South Africa.

Bundee Aki is now a Test Lion and will hope to help Connacht back towards 2016 heights, while the excellent Tom Farrell and powerful Peter Robb are looking to put injury nightmares well behind them.

Tom Daly was superb for Connacht last season, shining in both centre slots and even filling in at out-half, meaning he will be hard not to pick again this season. He earned an Ireland call-up but didn’t get a cap in July.

Sammy Arnold didn’t have the smoothest first season with Connacht after joining from Munster, with injury slowing him up, but he showed glimpses of his well-known quality whether in midfield or on the wing.

Back three

Tiernan O’Halloran [29, 182]
Matt Healy [32, 150]
John Porch [27, 40]
Alex Wootton [27, 22]
Peter Sullivan [23, 17]
Ben O’Donnell [26, 6]
Oran McNulty [21, 1]
Mack Hansen [23, 0]

mack-hansen New signing Mack Hansen. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

Friend has added an additional player to this area of his squad over the summer, with Mack Hansen arriving from the Brumbies to compete for a place at fullback or on the wing – as well as covering out-half – and his fellow fullback/wing Oran McNulty being promoted from the academy.

Stephen Fitzgerald has been forced to retire due to injury but Connacht’s options look balanced in the back three.

Tiernan O’Halloran remains an aggressive presence and leader at fullback, although Australian 7s international John Porch was superb there last season and has proven a brilliant signing by Friend.

His fellow Aussie, Ben O’Donnell, arrived with a long-term knee injury in the summer of 2020 so was limited to just six appearances last season but he certainly showed plenty of promise in those outings.

Alex Wootton was something of a revelation on loan from Munster last season and has now signed permanently, with the 27-year-old wing proving prolific in the manner Matt Healy has been for years. Now 32, the province’s record try-scorer is out to show he has plenty more tries in him.

Peter Sullivan also had a strong first season with the senior squad, offering a physical presence from the wing in his 17 appearances to show he belongs in professional rugby. 


The performances of Cathal Forde and Shane Jennings in midfield for the Ireland U20s over the summer underlined their exciting talent and both will hope to push into the senior mix with Connacht this season.

Another pair of Ireland U20s have joined Year 1 of the academy, with scrum-half Will Reilly and wing Josh O’Connor arriving.

As mentioned above, there may be scope for one or more of the academy back rows to feature in the senior team, while second row Darragh Murray – the younger brother of Niall – is highly regarded.

Year 1:

Will Reilly [scrum-half]
Josh O’Connor [back three] 

Year 2:

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

Year 3:

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

About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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