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Connacht's 'grassroots to green shirts' mantra driving improvement

Experienced forward Andrew Browne explains the motivational power of playing for his home province

GRASSROOTS TO GREEN shirts.

It’s very easy to be cynical about the slogans teams build their off-field culture around, and the fact that Connacht hung a fundraising scheme off the above mantra makes it all the more so.

That said, there is something very real in this particular modus operandi.

IrelandÕs  Robbie Henshaw Robbie Henshaw is the poster boy for the 'grassroots to green shirts' slogan. Source: Inpho/Billy Stickland

Homegrown players wearing the green of Ireland is a strong motivator for Connacht rugby, but having a core of grassroots-developed stars in their own green provincial shirt is also of genuine importance to head coach Pat Lam.

Robbie Henshaw is the strongest recent example of ‘grassroots to green shirts’ from Connacht’s point of view, and his teammates will certainly take some inspiration from his recent outings under Joe Schmidt.

“It’s brilliant and the whole of Ireland can see that Robbie belongs in that team,” says lock/back row Andrew Browne.

The Six Nations he had was unbelievable and he was possibly up there as player of the tournament.

“He’s excelled, but then you have the likes of Kieran Marmion training with the Irish team, Nathan White was up there, Rodney Ah You, Eoin McKeon was involved with the Wolfhounds against England in January.

“There are more and more coming through and it’s great to see. It’s testament to the work being done here and the success we’re having.”

Firmly in contention for automatic qualification into the Champions Cup [though nothing is assured] and preparing for a Challenge Cup quarter-final in Gloucester tomorrow, progress has certainly been made.

More Connacht men will target following Henshaw’s international example, but the most important green shirts right now are those Lam’s men will wear tomorrow evening at Kingsholm.

Andrew Browne Browne will be in his 10th year with Connacht next season. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

There isn’t a coach in the world who doesn’t understand the importance of having homegrown players drive their team. A core of locals adds guaranteed value to any side, but how exactly do these natives power the collective?

Browne – a Galway man who attended Scoil Chaitríona in Renmore before undergoing secondary education at St. Joseph’s Patrician College ['The Bish' to locals] – explains how representing his home province affects him positively.

“First of all, you’re representing your family and your friends. I grew up watching Connacht, watching my brother playing for Connacht. It means a hell of a lot to me and going out every single time on the pitch is a great honour.

Not a lot of people get to experience that, so every time I go out I want to make my friends, my family proud. Then also you’re representing where you’re from, the people of Connacht. That’s my motivation every time I go onto the pitch.”

An easier motivation for the physical challenges that await it seems, while 28-year-old Browne also points out that there is pressure and “that bit of fear” at being so personally involved.

“You don’t want to let people down, so that kinds of drives it.”

Lam, it seems, has pushed the homegrown motivator harder than anyone, though that impression is likely garnered due to the fact that the former Samoa international is more open to discussing Connacht’s off-the-field culture.

Andrew Browne scores the winning try After a knee injury early in the season, Browne is fully back in the mix for Connacht and starts against Gloucester tomorrow. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

It would be easy to credit Lam with introducing this culture en masse since his arrival at the start of last season, even if he has always credited predecessor Eric Elwood with laying all sorts of foundations.

Browne firmly echoes that sentiment.

“Eric had a very good culture as well,” says the Ireland Wolfhounds international. “Eric was a very passionate man and he was a Connacht man as well. Pat’s a very, very good coach and his ideas were different to Eric’s when he came in.

“The fresh approach is always nice and it can be an improvement, but the two of them, Eric and Pat, and Dan McFarland as well, they were always of that mantra of creating a winning culture in Connacht.

A lot of the time we were seen as the lesser province. More and more in the last two years, we’ve pushed on to a more equal foothold maybe.

“We’re getting closer, even the fact that we had the wins over Leinster and Munster this year, we’re becoming more competitive in those games year in, year out. The culture has improved, but it’s always been there in a strong way.”

Browne would know; next season will be his 10th with Connacht, and the point has been hammered home by conversations with his brother Damian.

The elder Browne has been with Oyonnax in the Top 14 since 2013, after a meandering and prosperous career that saw him stop off in Northampton, Brive and Leinster. For togetherness and buy-in, however, nothing could beat Damian’s time with Connacht.

Pat Lam and Andrew Browne Lam has built on the pre-existing cultural strengths Eric Elwood drove. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

“He says to this day that he’s never found the same culture or the same camaraderie as he had with lads who were from Connacht,” says the younger brother. “That’s a big thing to hear when it comes from him, having been in a few clubs now.”

Browne has just finalised terms on a new one-year contract with the province, meaning he will definitely head into that 10th season with his only professional province/club in the 2015/16 campaign.

He looked to the fine work being done by the likes of Nigel Carolan, Jimmy Duffy and others with the province’s academy, as well as the improvements Lam has brought about on and off the pitch, and felt no temptation to experience another rugby life elsewhere.

“You can see how much Connacht are improving year in, year out and you want to be part of that improvement because it’s your home province,” says Browne. “Really, right now I wouldn’t want to play anywhere else.

“I can just see the excitement around the place at how much we’re improving. This year in particular it’s a great team environment.”

Grassroots to green shirts. That means something.

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Murray Kinsella

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