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Academy out-half Dean underlines Connacht's growing squad depth

The 21-year-old has impressed Andy Friend and made his senior debut at Thomond Park last weekend.

EVEN IN DEFEAT, there were a number of positive strands to Connacht’s showing at Thomond Park on Saturday evening, not least their scrum dominance and the performance of a number of individuals.

One of Andy Friend’s main takeaways from the Pro14 inter-pro was his side’s need to turn possession and territory into points, particularly away from the Sportsground, but there was a lot to like about what Connacht’s reconfigured side offered against Munster.

Conor Dean Dean in action against Munster on Saturday. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

The pack’s superiority over a near first-choice Munster scrum at the set-piece was one pleasing aspect, while Kieran Marmion looked sharp as he bids to displace Caolin Blade in the nine jersey for Saturday’s quarter-final trip to Ulster.

A debut for 21-year-old Conor Dean brought Connacht’s tally of players used this season to 50, the young out-half the seventh academy prospect to make his first senior appearance this term, and Saturday again showed the province’s growing strength-in-depth.

With a number of front-liners wrapped in cotton wool, the trip to Limerick was about three things for Friend — playing with pride, taking opportunities handed to individuals and building on the momentum of four straight Pro14 victories.

A 27-14 loss meant there was initial disappointment in the away dressing room at Thomond Park but Friend and Connacht know they are in a good place heading to Belfast, and into next season.

“You only become a better rugby player by playing better rugby,” the head coach says.

“Too often coaches, we can make a judgement on a player and say he is just not ready yet. How do you know? Give him a chance. What we have done this year, we have given blokes chances. On the whole, they have answered that for us and said we are ready.

“Then what we have got in a squad is we have got a group of players who are pushing each other, stretching each other and getting better. The other big thing for us is we know we are in the Champions Cup next year. We cant just rely on 15 players. We are going to need depth within our squad.

“I honestly feel at the moment we can nearly put out two 15s that are very, very similar. We probably saw that against Munster. We saw some different names on the team-sheet yet they have come here to Thomond Park and are two scores from getting a win. We are building.”

Andy Friend Connacht head coach Andy Friend. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

The emergence of Dean is particularly pleasing, not just as a home-grown talent, but with Connacht’s out-half resources stretched after injuries to Craig Ronaldson, Dave Horwitz and Conor Fitzgerald.

Dean, the son of former Ireland international Paul, produced a composed display in the pivot against Munster, showing glimpses of his play-making and decision-making abilities, while kicking excellently from hand in the first half in particular.

“I thought he was good,” Friend continued. “He showed glimpses there. I thought he was, he had a little break at the end of the game there was probably his highlight. He’s calm, he’s pretty calm and collected for a young bloke. Directs the boys well and backs himself with his skill, didn’t shirk any of the defensive stuff, a couple of his kicks certainly in the first half were very good. I was pleased with his performance.

“He has been unflappable all week. He trained really well. Just looking at him he has got the confidence of the players around him because he is so assured of what he wants. He has got a lot of skill. That is the start of what I think is going to be a very promising career.

“With the good work that our academy coaching staff are doing and the identification that is going on there, we have got that depth coming through now which is very important.”

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Ryan Bailey

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