5 pressing questions as Connacht head into Pat Lam's second season

Promising backs, forward’s consistency, Champions Cup qualification and high-profile signings are all addressed.

Will the promising backs take control?

In Robbie Henshaw and Kieran Marmion, head coach Pat Lam has two of the brightest prospects in the country, with both players having been capped by Ireland last season. The former Samoa back row will spend little time worrying about their contributions, but what of his other talented youngsters?

Dave McSharry [24], Jack Carty [22], Darragh Leader [21], Shane Layden [21] and Tiernan O’Halloran [23], among others, have displayed their ability in recent seasons. They are now tasked with stepping into more prominent roles despite their youth.

Darragh Leader with James Gaskell Darragh Leader carries the ball in Connacht's pre-season friendly against Wasps. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Along with the likes of Matt Healy, Fionn Carr and Danie Poolman, Connacht have the elements to create an effective backline, but Lam must find the best combinations among the available options.

Can the pack deliver consistently?

Whatever about the quality in the back division, everything starts up front for Connacht and this is the area where Lam needs to find consistency most urgently. The loss of Craig Clarke will be notable, but John Muldoon seems an intelligent choice to replace the Kiwi as captain.

Connacht showed intermittently last season that they could compete with heavy, powerful packs, most notably in their famous win in Toulouse. However, when standards dropped they were dismantled, as in the heavy defeat away to Saracens.

Jake Heenan Openside flanker Jake Heenan looks like being a key influence again this season. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

An extensive injury list did not help last season, as Lam was repeatedly pushed into fielding the same forwards for long stretches of fixtures, but it is up to key men like Nathan White, Jake Heenan and Muldoon to demand more from those around them week in, week out.

Who is first-choice out-half?

Lam and new backs coach, Andre Bell, have three choices to fill the out-half position. Carty’s enthusiastic attacking skills are attractive, Craig Ronaldson offers robustness, strong kicking and detailed execution of a game plan, while Miah Nikora is eager for a new season.

Dan Parks has hung up his boots, leaving the trio to fight it out for first-choice status. While competition for places and squad rotation are desirable aspects of management, Lam would ideally have a stand-out candidate for the biggest games of the season.

Craig Ronaldson Former Lansdowne FC out-half is a strong option at out-half. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Nikora started the pre-season friendly against Clermont, while Carty got the nod to face Wasps. All three out-halves picked up game time, but it remains to be seen who Lam and Bell select for their most demanding competitive fixtures.

Is Champions Cup qualification within reach?

Connacht have a clear target this season – earning qualification to the top table of European rugby through their own hard work. Leinster’s success saw the westerners compete in the last three Heineken Cups, but they drop into the Challenge Cup this season.

A sixth-place finish in the Pro12 would potentially see Connacht into the 2015/16 edition of the Champions Cup, although that is not guaranteed due to each Pro12 country having to be represented in the European competition.

Pat Lam Lam has high ambitions for Connacht. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

If they are not to go directly into the Champions Cup, Connacht must achieve a high enough finishing position to secure one of the two play-off spots to face the seventh-placed team from the Top 14 or Premiership.

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Last season’s 10th place league finish won’t cut it.

What will the high-profile additions bring?

Mils Muliaina, Bundee Aki and Tom McCartney are likely to be three excellent signings, depending on their ability to settle in Ireland and adapt to the style of play Lam is pursuing in Connacht.

Aki is an explosive centre, with the ability to break the opposition defence thanks to his acceleration and quick-fire fend. On defence, his athletic strength allows him to make telling hits. At 24, the Kiwi is certainly not the finished article but should improve Connacht’s midfield.

McCartney adds a new layer of experienced quality to Connacht’s front row options, with the ability to play hooker or loosehead prop. Nicknamed ‘Freak,’ the 28-year-old is another player with notable physical attributes.

Mils Muliaina Muliaina's role extends well beyond the pitch in Galway. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Muliaina is of most interest, with Lam having stressed on a number of occasions the 34-year-old’s importance as a mentor for Connacht’s young backs, who we have already touched upon.

None of the trio of new high-profile additions will make their debuts until October at the earliest, but their impact could be the difference for Connacht between standing still and rising up the Pro 12 table this season.

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Murray Kinsella

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