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Your big rugby season preview: Connacht

We continue our province by province previews continue with a look at the men out west.

Former Connacht and Ireland captain Ciaran Fitzgerald (centre) with young guns Robbie Henshaw and Conor Finn.
Former Connacht and Ireland captain Ciaran Fitzgerald (centre) with young guns Robbie Henshaw and Conor Finn.
Image: INPHO/James Crombie

The Story so far

ERIC ELWOOD IS finally getting a much-needed break away from the game he loves so much and New Zealander Pat Lam is the new man in charge.

The former Auckland Blues coach has been in-situ since April and is so enamoured with the Connacht man that he made three of them his captains for 2013/14. Gavin Duffy, Michael Swift and John Muldoon will make the coin toss decisions based on form and who is actually starting.

Connacht started their pre-season before the other three provinces and were beaten in outings against Castres, Wasps and Newcastle. Lam used a swathe of players in the three matches and Muldoon has told TheScore.ie that a new, Kiwi-flavoured style of play [ie: not hoofing the ball away as much as before] is starting to take shape.

Best try of last season

He is over with Exeter Chiefs now and did not have the best of debut seasons, but Fetu’u Vainikolo was in top form last year. He scorched in a crucial try in the early stages of Connacht’s super home win over Biarritz in the Heineken Cup.

YouTube credit: Ballboll81

What’s changed?

A lot. 12 players out the door and 13 new faces in [five Academy graduates included]. Actually, some are not so new. Fionn Carr is back from Leinster for his second stint and ready to add to a club record total of tries. Sligo native Sean Henry has joined from Munster, as does James Rael.

The retirements of Johnny O’Concrete [O'Connor] and Adrian Flavin were not exactly unexpected and Lam’s dealings mean Connacht have ample hooker and back-row cover. The Ulster Bank League punt this season is the accurate Lansdowne outhalf Craig Ronaldson.

Connacht’s big loss over the summer, although it was confirmed last December, was second-row Mike McCarthy. His absence is off-set by the arrival of Kiwi lock Craig Clarke, fresh from captaining the Chiefs to successive Super Rugby titles.

Big questions

Can youth flourish again? Robbie Henshaw and Kieran Marmion were the finds of last season for Connacht and both toured to North America with the Irish senior team in June. What they gained in confidence from their excellent seasons may be negated by the fact they will be specific gameplans for them this season.

imageKieran Marmion, Robbie Henshaw and Matthew Jarvis in action against Harlequins. INPHO/James Crombie

Will the Kiwi game work out west? Elwood would be appalled to hear all this talk of a new direction and a ‘ball in hand’ game. As he constantly stressed for the final years of his reign, an in-form Connacht could mix it with the best of them and execute incisive backline moves. Players like Dave McSharry, Henshaw, Eoin Griffin, Eoin McKeon and Willie Faloon will come in handy if ball retention and an attacking thrust are needed. If all fails they can always go back to last season’s Plan A: Throw it to Dan Parks and go from there.

Predicted finish

A dodgy pre-season did little to cool Lam’s enthusiasm and an opening day win over Zebre [o from 22 last season] will help him ease in. The supremely optimistic among the Connacht faithful will look at the first five RaboDirect Pro12 games without fear. After that, things get tough.

Co-co-captain Muldoon told TheScore.ie that Connacht’s playing staff will be targeting a best ever league finish [sixth is the aim] and four wins in the Heineken Cup. If they can achieve that, he reasoned, they will have improved again.

Clarke’s presence, a fit Muldoon and Faloon, and attacking threat from wingers Danie Poolman and Carr may lead to mission accomplished in the league but beating Toulouse and Saracens in the H-Cup will be tough lacquer.

Pro12: Seventh.

Heineken Cup: Pool stages (three wins).

Strongest XV: R Henshaw; D Poolman, D McSharry, E Griffin, F Carr; D Parks, K Marmion; B Wilkinson, J Harris-Wright, R Loughney; M Swift, C Clarke; J Muldoon, W Faloon, E McKeon.

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About the author:

Patrick McCarry

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