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'I fell into a bit of a comfort zone, we were going through the motions'

Tiernan O’Halloran says there is a new energy around Connacht as they prepare to begin life under Kieran Keane.

THE THING ABOUT Tiernan O’Halloran is that he likes to talk, and he likes to be honest. In an era when every word that comes out of a player’s mouth is scrunitised by their employers, it’s pleasantly refreshing. But it can sometimes come out the wrong way.

Tiernan O'Halloran O'Halloran was speaking at last week's Guinness Pro14 launch. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

On the day Connacht officially unveiled their new coach Kieran Keane to the media, O’Halloran was asked what had gone so disastrously wrong during the final year of the previous regime. And he answered, openly and directly.

“Under Pat [Lam] we all had specific roles, we knew what we had to do but we were nearly a bit too robotic at times,” the fullback explained.

And anyone who watched Connacht last season knows it’s the truth. Not only did teams work out how to play against, and nullify, the threat of Lam’s gameplan, but the timing of his announcement caused serious disruption to the province’s campaign as defending Pro12 champions.

A couple of days later, O’Halloran, when prompted, felt the need to clarify the comments about his former coach. He wasn’t backtracking, but in fact elaborated further on the points he was making.

“That probably came out the wrong way,” he said, on reflection. “I wasn’t saying we were that robotic, I don’t think Pat was too happy with that one. I just meant there was a bit of disruption when Pat announced he was leaving so guys maybe went into their shell a bit.

“It was more maybe on our terms, going through the motions and we just felt a new coach was coming in and we weren’t really playing for each other at all. We played more as individuals as lads had different goals with summer tours coming up. It was disruptive and the season just didn’t go the way we wanted at all.”

After the thrilling, and exhilarating highs, of the previous season, there was always going to be a comedown for Connacht, but few could have expected the westerners to fall so far off their perch so quickly. It was quite the fall from grace.

Failure to qualify for the Champions Cup was a disaster but it’s all change around the Sportsground these days with a new season and new coach breeding fresh levels of excitement, anticipation and optimism.

Keane is only in the job a fortnight but already he is beginning to shape the squad and set-up into his mold ahead of Saturday’s Pro14 campaign opener against Glasgow in Galway.

Kieran Keane and Nigel Carolan Kieran Keane and Nigel Carolan. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

In addition to the arrival of Jarrad Butler, Andrew Deegan, Peter McCabe, Rory Scholes, Denis Coulson and Gavin Thornbury, the Connacht coaching ticket has been completely restructured with Nigel Carolan, Jimmy Duffy and Peter Wilkins working alongside Keane.

“So far, so good,” O’Halloran said of the new regime. “KK has only been over two weeks now but it has been a bit different. He gave Nigel and Jimmy his vision and how he wanted us to play back in May or June. The lads have been putting their own stamp on things and trying to implement his gameplan all summer.

“KK has been relatively happy with how we’re going. There are one or two things we needed to clean up, we weren’t doing it the way he would have liked us to do it. It’s obviously not ideal getting him in so late but at the same time the lads have done pretty well and it’s just a really good environment at the moment.

“Everything is fresh and new and back to square one. Guys in the past who had money in the bank and thought they could afford one or two bad performances and still be in the team. And now the guys who thought they didn’t stand a chance getting into the team, they’ve every chance now starting with a clean slate. It’s back to square one with everyone and that drives competition.

“Even personally as a fullback I fell into a bit of a comfort zone over the last six or eight months not really having much competition there but now there’s guys back fit and pushing for positions. Hopefully that will drive us all on to better performances and back onto a higher level again. It’s exciting, there’s a great buzz around the place. Everyone is loving just getting stuck in at training.”

That said, preparation time has been limited and this weekend’s season opener has come around the corner quicker than Keane would have liked. The new coach’s biggest concern is the lack of depth in Galway ahead of a campaign which will run to at least 27 games.

“I personally feel we have a little bit of a top side and a little bit of a drop at the moment which we are trying to filter and bring it closer together,” Keane said after Saturday’s friendly victory over Lam’s Bristol.

Tiernan O’Halloran O'Halloran is working his way back after knee surgery during the summer. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

“But, for me, the depth is not quite there for us for a long season for me but when we get our internationals back and some of our injured players that framework might change.”

One of the players Keane will be looking to get back into the fold as quickly as possibly is O’Halloran, who has been unable to take a full part in pre-season as he continues his recovery from minor knee surgery.

The Ireland international underwent the procedure to rectify an ongoing issue after the summer tour of Japan but has been working hard to ensure he is up-to-speed to slot straight back in once he gets the all clear.

“I haven’t got back into full training yet,” he explained. “I’ve plenty of catching up to do but that’s on me, that’s on me to do that work off the field too. I’ve been out there as well, whenever the lads are out on the pitch training I try to be out there watching and listening so when I do get back on I will be up to speed.

“I’m looking forward to working with him [Keane] and we’ve a few new players in as well so it is pretty exciting.”

O’Halloran is targeting the second or third week of the season for a potential return to action, by which stage he hopes Connacht will be fully up and running under the new coach. Although he’s only been able to watch from the sideline, the 26-year-old says the early signs have been promising.

A lot may have changed around Galway over the summer months but Keane has arrived with the same vision and philosophy as his predecessor, although we’re likely to see Connacht be much more structured in their defensive work and exit strategies this term.

The Connacht team huddle Source: James Crombie/INPHO

“He’s big on culture and the community,” O’Halloran said of Keane. “As he says, Connacht is a special place and you work hard for everything that you get. That’s something we’ve always bought into and agreed with and he’s carried that on from Pat.

“I suppose his on the field stuff is slightly different because he’s coming from the Chiefs which is Super Rugby; pretty expansive but maybe a bit more structured at times as well.

“We know we’ve got a lot to work on and we have changed a lot, especially exit strategies and things like that. It takes a bit of getting used to, but the main thing is everyone has bought into it. You just have to believe and trust in what they’re trying to do. You saw that with Pat. The first six months he was here we all thought he was crazy and we weren’t good enough to keep the ball the way he wanted.

“But in his second season we improved and then we won the Pro12. That’s the thing now, it’s all change in here. Hopefully that will lead us to improve all of our games and raise the standard.”

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