Coming into 2014, Connacht were at an all too familiar point. They had just lost Mike McCarthy, their only Ireland international, before the new season began; an all too familiar scenario for Connacht fans, who had watched Sean Cronin, Fionn Carr and Ian Keatley leave to join their Irish rivals in recent years.
The team’s performances also followed a recurring template; a win against the Italians or Scots, followed by a big defeat to one of the top sides and then a moral victory or two every season.
Pat Lam was the man appointed to change all of this and although it took time, there were signs of improvement, like the win over Toulouse in the Heineken Cup. However, the 2013-2014 season petered out and although Connacht beat Treviso, Edinburgh, Zebre and the Dragons in consecutive games, they could not beat any of the top seven teams and finished in their usual tenth place.
The scale of the task ahead of the management was put into view by the fact that their four game winning streak was the longest the province had in 11 years. The team’s inbuilt inferiority complex was clearly something Pat Lam had to change. To do this he knew he had to bring the right players and a winning mentality to Connacht, while also holding on to his top performers.
Experience was a key element needed, especially after the departure of Dan Parks, and this was one area that the Connacht management certainly exceeded expectations. It isn’t too often any Irish province can attract the services of a 100 cap All-Black, let alone Connacht, so there were a few admiring glances when the signing of Mils Muliaina was announced. Although he has only made a handful of appearances so far, it is unquantifiable how much of an effect his presence has had on Connacht’s mindset.
With Muliaina joined by fellow New Zealander, Bundee Aki, Connacht’s back line was really starting to take shape, especially considering the rise of homegrown players in the previous season, namely Robbie Henshaw, Darragh Leader and Kieran Marmion. Of course all three players went on to join Joe Schimdt’s Ireland squad during the November internationals, along with Rodney Ah You, confirming their talent is to be taken seriously.
Starting in September, a new Connacht have emerged. Beginning with three straight wins, including an attritional 10-9 win over Leinster, Lam’s men put out a marker and showed a new level of maturity. Although the Cardiff Blues snatched a draw in the Sportsground, that they never should have been allowed, Connacht went unbeaten at home for the rest of 2014.
They have lost away to Leinster, Ulster, Glasgow Warriors and the Ospreys, but in a highly competitive league, a good home record will take a team far. The increased competitiveness of the Pro12 is of course due to the new method of Champions Cup qualification. Connacht are in an excellent position to claim sixth place and the last automatic qualification spot, provided that they can maintain their home form and pick up a few scalps on the road.
At this stage, Connacht fans should be looking smugly down the table at some of the Welsh regions. In the course of a BBC scrum V debate, notorious Welsh pundit Stephen Jones claimed that; “You can have a great European tournament where you don’t have to go to Connacht”. Unfortunately for him, teams may have no choice in the matter if Connacht keep up their form. At the moment, Ospreys are the only Welsh side on course to qualify for the Champions Cup next season.
Champions Cup rugby back in the Sportsground would be a huge boost to the province, but they still have European Rugby to play this season in the Challenge Cup, all courtesy of a huge performance, against Bayonne on their home soil, by a second string side. Qualification for the quarter finals will rest on avenging the 33-13 loss that Connacht suffered away to the Exeter Chiefs.
There have been false dawns before, but this time it really seems that Connacht have finally emerged on level terms with the other Irish provinces. This newfound optimism on the field has translated to more ambition off the pitch, with Pat Lam recently suggesting that a 20,000 seater stadium might be needed to house the ever increasing fan base. Attendances have been steadily growing over the course of the year and the hope for 2015 is, as the team grows on the pitch, so too will the crowd in the stands.
By Michael Farrell
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