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New faces quickly finding their rhythm at Connacht

Connacht attack coach Pete Wilkins sees huge potential in summer signings Mack Hansen and Shayne Bolton.

Connacht wing Mack Hansen.
Connacht wing Mack Hansen.
Image: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

TIME AND AGAIN, Andy Friend manages to pluck players from relative obscurity and slot them seamlessly into his Connacht squad. It’s an invaluable quality for a coach working with a limited budget.

This year, the new star attraction at the Sportsground is Irish-qualified Australian Mack Hansen. Signed from Super Rugby side the Brumbies, the 23-year-old already has six appearances and four tries to his name, sufficiently impressing to join up with Andy Farrell’s Ireland squad last month.

And with Connacht currently trying to develop a more open, attacking gameplan, Hansen seems ready-made for the style of play that Friend and his attack coach, Pete Wilkins are looking to employ.

“He is a free spirit in a rugby sense and you would have seen from some of his interviews and conversations, he’s a great character who is open minded about his rugby,” says Wilkins.

“He’s been great, he’s thrived in this environment and the way we’re playing hopefully will liberate him to pop up in different parts of the field and find different ways of getting involved in the game.

“It comes back to how much do we worry about where our pieces are on the chessboard and how much do we actually set them free to find their own way.

“Mack’s been really effective whether he’s popping up in that scrum-half position, finding movement in field, running off No 9 or 10, or in that conventional openside wing position where he’s on the end of hopefully some good play to finish off tries. You do need characters and personalities like that, because they embrace that way of looking at the game.

“It’s in our interest to get him in the game and on the ball as much as possible.”

With Hansen up and running, the province have also started to blood another of their summer aquistations, Shayne Bolton.

shayne-bolton-and-joe-hawkins Shayne Bolton made his debut against the Ospreys last week. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

The 21-year-old made the move to Galway from South Africa, where he had represented the University of Free State in the Varsity Cup. Bolton made his Connacht debut in the win over Ospreys last week, and the versatile back looked right at home in the Connacht midfield, scoring in an early try in a energetic, promising performance.

“It was a really positive debut for Shayne and we were really pleased for him,” Wilkins says.

We talk about different guys we have got this year who either moved from overseas or moved for an opportunity and of all them, for Shayne to uproot himself from South Africa at a relatively young age is an enormous challenge. And credit to him for the way he has embraced that because it’s not easy for anyone, but particularly when you’re only a few years out of school and you’re going to the other side of the world.

“He’s been great to work with. He’s got a fantastic work ethic. He’s got a rawness about him as you would expect from any player at that stage of their career, but it’s actually really exciting.

“You saw some of his power in the close quarters contact to get through defenders and get out the other side. He’s got great leg drive, nice square hips in contact, so that power transfer around all of his attacking and defensive contact work is a real strength of his, and we’ll keep trying to build on that.”

While Bolton started at centre last week, the Connacht coaching team have yet to settle on his strongest position.

“The biggest challenge for us is working out where he’s most effective,” Wilkins explains.

He can certainly play 12 for us, he got that opportunity at 13 (against Ospreys). He’s quick enough to play on the wing for us and I think between these four walls, he probably quite likes the idea of fullback as well. 

“So it’s how we help shape him, help him grow and become a specialist without taking away that versatility.”

As for Hansen, the targets have already shifted beyond making himself a presence in the Connacht team. Keep up his current strong form, and the electric winger will surely be in the Ireland conversation again once the Six Nations rolls around.

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And Wilkins is confident Connacht’s style will work to Hansen’s favour in that regard.

“It’s far easier to take a player who does want to express himself and show different facets to his game and mould them into the way you’re trying to play, than to try and open the minds of someone who has been regimented and drilled into your way of playing. It’s a slightly easier challenge.

“In terms of the Irish provinces, there’s no right or wrong way of playing the game, but from what I’ve seen of Ireland over the last few weeks, we would be fairly similar to how they see the game and want to play the game.

“Not identical, there are differences in there, but the way we’re playing now can only help out our Connacht players in terms of their national aspirations.

“They’re going to get chances to show all the traits that the national coaches want to see.”

BTL 5

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Ciarán Kennedy

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