Tag Archives: Connacht

Connacht Look For 3rd-in-a-Row

Frank Murphy pass

Frank Murphy spins a pass away during Connacht's 26-21 win over Ulster last weekend. (c) Eoin Gardiner.

This week’s IRUPA Player and Young Player of the Season shortlists unsurprisingly failed to include a Connacht player. Ronan Loughney was included on the Medal for Excellence shortlist alongside Shane Jennings and Mick O’Driscoll. That award is basically the ‘Unsung Hero’ prize. Check out the full shortlists for all the awards here.

Surely the lists in the main competitions could have been extended to four to include a player from Connacht, seeing as every other province is represented? Mike McCarthy, Brett Wilkinson, Gavin Duffy and Loughney have been ever-present and instrumental in all of the big Connacht performances this season. In the Young Player category, Tiernan O’Halloran’s superb season deserves mention.

Anyway, Eric Elwood and his squad will be unconcerned ahead of a weekend where they can earn a 3rd consecutive win in the PRO12 . They host Aironi in the Sportsground tomorrow evening (17.00 KO). If they win, it will be their second best run of form since this competition took on the current league format back in 2003/04. That season, Connacht won 4 games on the trot (Borders, Glasgow, Llanelli and Borders again, for the record). Since then, the best they have managed in the league is two wins in a row.

It’s been a rough ride for Connacht rugby since the Celtic/Magners/PRO12  league’s inception. They have finished in the bottom two positions for seven consecutive seasons. That 4-game run in ’03/04 helped them to 9th of 12 teams, their best-ever final standing since the competition became one league. In the two seasons prior to ’03/04, the tournament was split into two pools of 8, with the top 4 teams in each pool entering the quarter-finals.

Connacht v Munster

Connacht rugby has always been overshadowed by its provincial rivals. (c) Eoin Gardiner.

Both those seasons were particularly successful for Connacht as they reached the quarter-finals in consecutive campaigns, losing to Glasgow in ’01/02 and Munster in ’02/03. In that ’02/03 season, Connacht even had a 5-game winning run (Borders, Cardiff, Leinster, Newport and Bridgend that time). Those seem like relative glory days compared with what the western province’s fans have been watching since. However, as I have mentioned before and truly believe, the signs from Connacht this season have been positive.

Tomorrow’s game at home to Aironi is one that Elwood’s men simply have to be winning if they are to continue moving forward. They are a better team than Aironi and their performance needs to show the confidence that has been building in the second half of this season, highlighted by wins over Harlequins and Ulster. If Connacht can manage to win both of their remaining fixtures (the final one is away to the Warriors) then they have a strong chance of a best-ever 8th-placed finish.

If that is achieved, coupled with a first Heineken Cup win in their debut season, this campaign will have represented superb progress for the province. Elwood has managed to blood some exciting young talent this season in the likes of Eoin Griffin, Dave McSharry, O’Halloran and Denis Buckley. Ireland U20s’ fullback Shane Layden will hope to join those ranks next season. The signings of Nathan White, Dan Parks and Willie Faloon will certainly add quality to Elwood’s squad too.

Ruan Pienaar

The Connacht defence smothers Ruan Pienaar during the win over Ulster. (c) Eoin Gardiner.

The hope for Irish rugby is that either Ulster or Leinster wins the Heineken Cup, thereby ensuring qualification for Connacht again. Elwood would be better prepared to balance his squad at the second time of asking. This season, Connacht were often stretched, playing largely the same team from week to week. That effected their PRO12 form, manifested in the inability to see out games from winning positions.

Another positive is that Connacht will field an ‘A’ team in the British and Irish Cup for the first time next season. That means decent exposure for more of the province’s Academy and underage players. Furthermore, Connacht are exempt from the IRFU’s succession strategy, which will soon limit the number of Non-Irish Qualified players at the other three provinces. Elwood and his management team will have few restrictions as they aim to bring Connacht rugby to a new level in the coming years.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Small steps at a time, inch by inch; that’s the way. It all starts with securing a 3rd consecutive PRO12 win tomorrow in Galway. That would represent clear, statistical progress. Do that and focus will turn to the Warriors, where a win could mean a best-ever finish. It’s impossible to say for certain where Connacht will go from there, but I’m optimistic.


Photos courtesy: Eoin Gardiner.

The Exiled Irish: Allez Les Verts

French Flag with Sun

Who wouldn't want to play in sunny France? (c) garko88

Two weeks ago, The Touchline looked at a team of young Irish players currently contracted in England (Youth XV Backline and Youth XV Pack). This week’s Exiled Irish piece is set in France, where there are a handful of Irish men plying their trade. It’s certainly a less popular destination for guys looking to leave these shores, but we may see more of it in the near future as the increasingly important rugby agents in Ireland broaden their contact bases.

Once again, it all boils down to the lack of opportunity here in Ireland for professional rugby players. Compared to our four provinces, France obviously has 14 teams in the Top 14 as well as a further 16 in the second-tier Pro D2. Many players who fail to make the grade with the provinces, or find themselves on the fringes of the senior set-ups, could easily forge a professional career for themselves in France.

Rugby Photoshoot - Grenoble vs Narbonne - 31/03/12

Andrew Farley claims a lineout for Grenoble in the Top 14. (c) Vijay PhotoWalks.

The IRFU needs to change its stance on guys who play abroad. While never explicitly articulated, it’s generally accepted that moving away from Ireland decreases your chance of gaining international honours. While I’m not advocating a mass exodus of our top players, like we’re seeing from Wales at the moment, would it be such a bad thing if someone like Luke Fitzgerald were to play in the Top 14? It could improve him immensely as a player and a person. There are obvious negatives to players moving away but it’s worth a thought.

For now, I profile several Irish players currently contracted to French clubs. Again, the aim is to highlight guys who took a risk by moving abroad in order to ensure a continuing career in professional rugby. The intention is not to suggest these guys as immediate international prospects, but rather to applaud them for having the balls to move abroad to keep playing rugby. Interestingly, all four have played for Connacht!


Andrew Farley

Farley competes in the air against Scotland during the 2007 Churchill Cup. (c) Caroline Mockett ARPS.

A slightly different story to what has come in the Exiled Irish so far, but one worth highlighting. 31-year-old Farley is Irish by residency, having spent 5 seasons with Connacht. Born in Australia, he has had a long and varied career, but many Irish fans will remember his years in the second-row in Galway. Capped at U19 level for Australia, Farley moved to Italian side L’Aquila to play Heineken Cup rugby in ’00/01. The following season he did the same in Wales with Swansea, before Connacht swooped to sign him during the ’04/05 campaign.

5 years of Magners League and Amlin Cup followed in Ireland, 3 of them as captain. Having gained Irish nationality, Farley played for Ireland ‘A’ as they won the Plate at the 2007 Churchill Cup. In 2009, the Brisbane-born lock decided it was time for a new adventure and signed with Pro D2 side Grenoble. He was soon elected captain and this season has led the side to promotion to the Top 14. Farley is contracted for next season too and looks likely to be the first Irish man to captain a Top 14 club. An exiled exile, if you will, and a legend too!

Grenoble Profile: Andrew Farley     Twitter: @BruceFarls


Brian McGovern

The 26-year-old tighthead prop is currently with French Pro D2 side Narbonne. Back in 2004, while still at St.Mary’s, he represented the Irish Schools alongside Rob Kearney, Sean Cronin and Devin Toner. After graduating, he spent a couple of years playing AIL with UCD, before Connacht signed him for the ’07/08 season. However, only 1 start followed in the next two seasons, prompting a move to Italian Super 10 outfit Venezia. In Italy, the Dubliner finally enjoyed first-team rugby and his 15 starts earned him a move to Narbonne at the start of the ’10/11 season.

Narbonne have struggled to set the Pro D2 alight in the last couple of seasons, finishing 13th in McGovern’s first season and lying 14th with just one fixture remaining this year. Matt Williams came in as Coaching Director and a shareholder at the club this season but has had little impact. As for McGovern, he has been involved in 14 of Narbonne’s 27 league fixtures this season, although has only started 3 times. Still relatively young for a prop, McGovern has plenty of time to secure a more important berth within the squad.


Christian Short

Short (wearing scrumcap) waits for lineout ball against Montpellier earlier this season. (c) Cecile Mallet.

Short is the only Irish-qualified player contracted to a Top 14 club at the moment. Unfortunately it looks almost certain that he and his Lyon teammates will be swapping places with Farley and co. for next season. Lyon are bottom of the Top 14 with just three games remaining. 32-year-old Short was born in Newcastle, England but qualifies for Ireland through his parents. His professional career began with Connacht in 2003. His impressive form in the ’05/06 campaign earned him a move to Premiership side Northampton the following season, where he was first-choice in a Heineken Cup year.

However, the Saints were relegated to the Championship and second-row Short headed for Top 14 side Brive. The 6’6″ lock enjoyed two seasons there, once again playing Heineken Cup rugby in ’09/10. The following season he dropped down to the Pro D2 to join current club Lyon. Short, an intelligent lineout operator, played a major role as Lyon were promoted in his first season. However, life in the Top 14 has proved tough for Lyon. Short’s impact on the French top-tier has been limited to just 4 starts. Still, he has made a great career out of rugby since leaving Ireland.

Lyon Profile: Christian Short (check out the bad video).


David McGowan

McGowan is in his 5th season with Pro D2 side La Rochelle. The 26-year-old Sligo native has been capped by Ireland at U19 and U21 levels (the same year as Sean O’Brien, Jonny Sexton and Paul Marshall amongst others) while playing with Buccaneers RFC. A development contract with Connacht followed in ’05/06 but over the course of two seasons, the 6’5′ lock made just 5 substitute appearances. He hired an agent and signed with La Rochelle at the start of the ’07/08 season, becoming an important first-team player almost immediately.

La Rochelle were promoted to the Top 14 for the ’10/11 campaign, but McGowan’s season was frustratingly limited to 6 starts by a shoulder injury and concussion, also preventing him from making an appearance in the Amlin Challenge Cup. This season, back in the Pro D2, the western outfit have gone well and look likely to be involved in next month’s promotion play-offs. Once again, injuries have somewhat restricted McGowan’s involvement, but he continues to enjoy life in France. In McGowan’s own words: “People often don’t realise how much of a closed shop it can be at home. There are only four professional clubs in Ireland”.

La Rochelle Profile: David McGowan


Photos courtesy: Caroline Mockett ARPS, Cecile Mallet, garko88, Vijay PhotoWalks.

Munster’s Need is Greater

Leading out copy

O'Connell won't be leading Munster out tomorrow night. (c) Ivan O'Riordan.

Another chapter of one of sport’s great rivalries will be written in Thomond Park tomorrow night. While there’s no immediate reward at stake for this battle, there is plenty to play for. Munster’s need for a win appears to be far greater. We’re into the real business end of the season, with the HC quater-finals to come the weekend after this. While a Leinster loss tomorrow would be a blow for them, failure at home could have catastrophic effects for Munster.

Picture it: a Munster loss at home just 8 days before that massive quarter-final against an Ulster side who have no fear of Thomond Park. How would it affect the side’s confidence knowing that they had failed against even bigger rivals the weekend before? The consequences would reach further than the Heineken Cup too. Munster’s next three PRO12 games are against the Warriors (h), Scarlets (a) and Ulster (h). All three of those sides are still play-off contention. A loss to Leinster tomorrow puts Munster right back in the thick of that battle. A win would allow some breathing space.

Would a loss effect Leinster as much? On the surface, no. They currently have an 8-point lead over Munster at the top of the PRO12. Losing tomorrow would have no effect on their league position, while two of their final three fixtures are very winnable (Edinburgh at home and Dragons away). Next weekend’s quarter-final at the Aviva is against the Blues, who will be boosted by Wales’ Grand Slam. Still, betting against Leinster in that one won’t be on too many people’s agenda. A defeat to Munster is never welcome, but the fact that the game is in Thomond Park would reduce any ill-effects.

Kearney returns for Leinster at fullback. (c) Ken Bohane.

As if Munster’s mission was already not difficult enough, this season’s leading lights of O’Connell, Ryan and Murray have all been ruled out through injury. These losses will be as keenly felt as POC and BOD’s were by Ireland during the Six Nations. Others will now have to step up as Ryan for Ireland. He would have relished this game, still with something to prove after starting only two Six Nations games. Who will provide the leadership without O’Connell? Who will provide the aggression without Ryan?

Leinster’s deck of cards is almost full with the return of their complement of internationals. After some patchy form recently, Joe Schmidt will be keen to get back to their glorious December heights ahead of next weekend’s quarter-final. Last season, Munster got back on top of this rivalry with a narrow 9-13 loss in the Aviva being followed by a 24-23 win in Thomond Park and that 19-9 Magners League Final win. Their only meeting this season resulted in a 24-19 win for Leinster in the Aviva.

Elsewhere, Ulster are in action tonight against bottom side Aironi. It’s a good chance for Brian McLaughlin’s side to secure a try-scoring bonus point in Ravenhill and keep themselves in contention for a play-off spot. Stephen Ferris, Rory Best and Andrew Trimble return to the side after their Six Nations involvement. Interestingly, McLaughlin has gone for Lewis Stevenson in the second-row ahead of Dan Tuohy, who has had a great season up to this point.

Ulster Aironi

Ulster have already beaten Aironi 3 times this season, twice with bonus points. (c) Fabio Beretta.

McLaughlin has stated that a number of places are still up for grabs ahead of next weekend’s quarter-final in Thomond Park. Tuohy will be devastated if this is an indication of his coach’s thinking before that Heineken Cup outing. A bonus point tonight looks even more important when you look at Ulster’s three remaining PRO12 fixtures, where they face three inter-pro derbies in a row: Connacht (a), Leinster (h) and Munster (a).

Connacht also play tonight as they travel to take on a Dragons side who have enjoyed a superb turn-around of form recently. They’ve won 4 of their last 5 games, and welcome back Grand Slam trio Dan Lydiate, Toby Faletau and captain Luke Charteris for this game. The pressure is on Eric Elwood to finish this season with a few more Connacht wins. It would be disappointing to let the season simply peter out.

This week brought more good news for Connacht ahead of next season with the announcement of Willie Faloon’s signature. The 25-year-old openside joins from Connacht with plenty to prove. He will relish the opportunity for more game time at the western province. Along with Dan Parks and Nathan White, Faloon should help improve this inconsistent Connacht team.

It’s another PRO12 weekend with so much at stake. Enjoy!


Photos courtesy: Ivan O’Riordan, Ken Bohane, Fabio Beretta.

Positive Signs From Connacht

Connacht Rugby

Connacht have recovered well from a tough mid-season run. (c) Pierre-Selim.

There’s been plenty of good news from the West in recent times. The coup of Leinster’s Nathan White last month was followed up by the capture of experienced outhalf Dan Parks. Equally positive is the revelation that all four of Dave Gannon, Paul O’Donohoe, Dave Moore and Kyle Tonetti have extended their contracts beyond the end of this season.

Earlier in the campaign, the highly promising trio of Tiernan O’Halloran, Eoin Griffin and Dave McSharry tied themselves to their home province for at least another two seasons. It’s a hugely encouraging sign that these ambitious prospects want to be part of a progressing Connacht.

Unfortunately, it’s been a frustrating campaign for Elwood and his squad to date. Their infamous 14-game losing streak from the end of September until mid-January wasn’t a totally fair reflection of their performances. Of those 14 games, only 5 were lost by more than 10 points, and came against powerhouses like Toulouse, Munster and Ulster. Many of the losses came by narrow margins, due to the lack of accuracy in Connacht’s finishing and an inability to close out winning positions.

That’s not to excuse the bad run, a loss is still very much a loss and there were some poor displays along the way. Momentum is a vital factor in any league and not just in regard to winning. Anyone involved in a side racking up consecutive losses will know that the momentum of losing can be hard to stop. Connacht did it manfully, with their heroic 9-8 Heineken Cup win over quarter-final chasing Harlequins. That night at the Sportsground will never be forgotten in Galway.

O'Halloran has signed on for at least another two years. (c) Pierre-Selim.

The fact that Connacht were in the Heineken Cup at all was certainly a contributing factor to their poor PRO12 form. Compared to the massive squads at Munster, Ulster and Leinster, Elwood’s player base is small. The combined demands of the PRO12 and HC stretched the squad. The coach had very little room for rotation, making minimal changes from week to week. Big efforts and narrow misses in Pool 1 against Harlequins away, and both ties with Gloucester took a lot out of the players.

The signings of Parks and White could make an influential difference next season. New Zealander White has been impressive in his 16 appearances for Leinster this season. He will add leadership on and off the pitch, as well as strong scrummaging at tighthead. With Brett Wilkinson packing down at loosehead and the likes of Ronan Loughney, Rodney Ah You and Dylan Rogers providing cover and competition, Connacht look like being well-stocked in the front-row for next season.

Parks is an interesting acquisition, but the deal makes sense. At 33, concerns will be raised that Parks is past it as this level. However, age is not really a concern here. Much like Ronan O’Gara, Parks’ playing style and strengths have never been reliant on physical attributes. He will kick the corners to put Connacht into good positions, he will release his outside backs when it’s on, and most crucially, he will take any points on offer.

The Scot is the all-time record scorer in the PRO12/Celtic League with 1338 points in his 128 games since 2003. This season, he has kept his rate up with 75 points in 9 games for the Blues. Parks’ reliable boot is what Connacht have missed at times this season. Niall O’Connor has done well in patches, but too many times Connacht have come away from good territory with nothing to show on the scoreboard. Parks will convert a high percentage of any penalties on offer and if nothing’s on, will try the drop goal.

Parks Penalty

Parks will convert territory and possession into points. (c) Simon Williams.

White and Parks should improve the team next season and if Elwood can add one or two more players of decent quality, Connacht will be heading into next season with higher expectations. With the young players hopefully continuing to improve, Connacht will hope for a Leinster, Munster or Ulster Heineken Cup win and the top-tier European qualification that would bring.

For now the focus is on a strong finish to the PRO12 season. Connacht sit 10th coming into tomorrow evening’s clash with Munster in Galway. There’s 5 games left including this derby, and Connacht can rise up the table with a good run. Munster at home, Dragons away, then Ulster and Aironi at home will all look like winnable fixtures to Elwood and his management team.

9th is the highest Connacht have ever finished in this league. Treviso in 8th are only 5 points ahead and that should be the target. 4 wins from the 5 in these remaining games would also allow the western province to equal their record for most amounts of wins in a league season, set at 8 all the way back in 2003/04. It’s a big ask but certainly achievable. Time to ‘front up, rise up’.


Photos courtesy: Simon WilliamsPierre-Selim.

PRO12 Preview: Scarlets vs. Connacht

ST vs Connacht-10

Connacht's hard work this season is starting to pay off. (c) Pierre-Selim.

Friday 2nd March, 19.30 (Not televised)

It’s been a great two weeks for Connacht and their supporters with the signings of Nathan White and Dan Parks being announced for next season, as well as the winless run in the PRO12 ending with a well-deserved 26-13 win over Edinburgh last Friday. The Connacht squad must be buzzing at the moment and rightfully so. Since ending their torrid 14-game losing streak with that famous 9-8 win over Harlequins in January, the outlook at the province has become increasingly positive. Hopefully that will continue at Parc y Scarlets tomorrow night.

Eric Elwood has had to make several changes to last weekend’s victorious team. Brett Wilkinson and Mike McCarthy are on Ireland duty this week so miss out. That means a first start for Munster’s on-loan tighthead Peter Borlase, with Ronan Loughney moving over to loosehead. 20-year-old Dave Heffernan wins his first cap at blindside while fellow Connacht Academy member Mick Kearney starts in the second-row.

There’s youth in the backline too where Dave McSharry and Eoin Griffin renew the midfield partnership that showed such promise earlier in the season. Niall O’Connor misses out through injury, meaning a rare start for Miah Nikora at flyhalf. The bench features several other youngsters with Academy prop Denis Buckley joined by Eoghan Grace, Dave Moore, Matt Jarvis and Kyle Tonetti.

Meanwhile, the Scarlets have been able to bolster their team with four released Wales squad players in Liam Williams on the right wing, Rhodri Jones at loosehead as well as Aaron Shingler and the brilliantly-named Lou Reed in the second-row. Worryingly, the Scarlets are aiming for their seventh consecutive  home league win. Last weekend’s 34-20 win over Treviso ensure that the Welsh region are still in the play-off race.

Having written off Connacht last weekend this is even harder to call, but the Scarlets have more to play for tomorrow night. Verdict: Scarlets by 3.

Scarlets: 15 Dan Newton, 14 Liam Williams, 13 Gareth Maule (capt.), 12 Adam Warren, 11 Andy Fenby, 10 Stephen Jones, 9 Liam Davies, 8 Kieran Murphy. 7 Johnathan Edwards, 6 Josh Turnbull, 5 Aaron Shingler, 4 Lou Reed, 3 Deacon Manu, 2 Emyr Phillips, 1 Rhodri Jones.
Subs: 16 Kirby Myhill, 17 Phil John, 18 Peter Edwards, 19 Dominic Day, 20 Mat Gilbert, 21 Gareth Davies, 22 Nick Reynolds, 23 Viliame Iongi.

Connacht: 15 Gavin Duffy (capt.), 14 Fetu’u Vainikolo, 13 Eoin Griffin, 12 Dave McSharry, 11 Tiernan O’Halloran, 10 Miah Nikora, 9 Frank Murphy, 8 George Naoupu, 7 Ray Ofisa, 6 Dave Heffernan, 5 Mick Kearney, 4 Michael Swift, 3 Peter Borlase, 2 Adrian Flavin, 1 Ronan Loughney.
Subs: 16 Ethienne Reynecke, 17 Denis Buckley, 18 Stewart Maguire, 19 John Muldoon, 20 Eoghan Grace, 21 Dave Moore, 22 Matthew Jarvis, 23 Kyle Tonetti.

Referee: Marius Mitrea (Italy).


Photo courtesy:  Pierre-Selim.