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.
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.
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.