CONNACHT’S WINNING STREAKS this season look like this: one, one, one, one, one, one, one and two.
Zebre arrive at the Sportsground tonight and, if the westerners defeat them for a fourth time this season, the streak could be up to three.
With coach Eric Elwood departing at the end of the season, and incoming coach Pat Lam arriving on 4 April, Connacht are aiming to finish the season on a high. Accordingly, have their sights set on a highest ever league finish.
While they are not yet in the hunt for trophies, the changes out west in the past five years have been remarkable.
Connacht competed in their second year of Heineken Cup rugby and, in the past year, have had nine players called up to train or play with the senior squad.
One of those players is winger Tiernan O’Halloran, who trained with the Irish squad last November. The Galwegian is into his seventh year with the province, having trained with the academy squad as a 16-year-old.
O’Halloran told TheScore.ie, “When I started, we used to do our weights in a little shed. You’d go to the weight room and it was a tiny room used for squatting. It was very basic.
“At the time , Connacht seemed to be at a standstill but the changes over the last couple of years have been massive.”
Those changes, thanks in large part to the IRFU, have included new gym facilities, the Clan Terrace and an all-weather pitch to train on. Yesterday, Connacht launched its Grassroots to Greenshirts fundraising drive in an effort to collect funds for further improvements.
O’Halloran said, “Coming from crowds, in the past, of 800 or 900, we’ll now have 4,000 or 5,000 and up to 9,000 for a Heineken Cup game.”
A crowd of just under 7,000 packed into the Sportsground in December to witness Connacht defeat a Biarritz team featuring Imanol Harinordoquy, Dimitri Yachvilli and Iain Balshaw.
“If you were going to tell someone that [result] five or six years ago,” remarks O’Halloran, “they’d tell you you were dreaming.”
The 22-year-old is excited by the numbers of young players from the province that have filtered into the team. He commented:
In the past, there were a lot of lads from all over the world being bought in. It’s great to see now because we have that blend of experience and local talent. They crowd are really buying into that too.”
O’Halloran added, “Robbie Henshaw came out of school last summer as an 18-year-old and his rise has been massive. Not just playing – you should see the physical size of Robbie from where he was six months ago. He’s so much bigger and stronger.”
Mike McCarthy may be Leinster-bound in the summer but Connacht are doing good business in signing up young stars such as Henshaw and Kieran Marmion to extended contracts.
When does a streak become a streak?
O’Halloran says the entire squad is targeting a best ever league position and, with Cardiff and Treviso one win away, sixth place is an attainable goal.
He added, “That would give us something to build on and we could start pushing for [Pro12] playoffs next year. That’s a real focus of ours.”
Three victories over Zebre have aided Connacht in their European and league ambitions this season but the latest of those games, at the Sportsground in January, was a narrow 25-20 win with the Italians denied a late upset.
O’Halloran charges down a clearance by Zebre’s Tito Tebaldi. (©INPHO/James Crombie)
O’Halloran said, “We’ve had two massive wins in a row now. The Cardiff win was massive as it was only our second away win of the season.
“We’ve beaten Zebre three out of three this year so the one thing you’ be worried about is complacency. They’re a very tough side and have pushed teams lost in their last couple of games.
“Three wins out of three for us would put us in very good shape for Munster away.”