Connacht have always been to some extent the forgotten little brother of the Irish provinces. They nearly went bust in the early 2000’s with the IRFU wanting to disband the team to cut cost. Since then, things have improved for the side, with the highlight being the PRO 12 winning side of 2015-16.
This was unfortunately an outlier year as they followed this season up with an 8th place finish in the league and the departure of league winning manager Pat Lam. It has been an up and down few years for the province since his with the odds of another league winning season looking very slim at this point.
The 2021-22 United Rugby League campaign is another down year for Connacht as they continue to struggle in mid table mediocrity and the trashing they received from Leinster shows how big the gap is.
Teams like Connacht feel the absence of international players like Bundee Aki and Mack Hansen more so than teams like Leinster and Munster who have depth charts far beyond the means of Connacht.
Holding onto these players is another story, with Bundee Aki being one of the few top-class players to stay with Connacht long after most people would have assumed they would leave. Mack Hansen is another story with questions around how long he will stay with the province after his meteoric rise to Irish international.
The story is the same at underage level with only one Connacht academy player on the Grand slam winning Irish under 20s squad which was six fewer than any other province. This disparity of quality of depth looks like it will not be closing any time soon.
The only hope that Connacht have in competing with these top teams again is to strike gold with recruiting players from abroad and hope that players the calibre of Bundee Aki and Mack Hansen arrive because Connacht do not have the young prospects to lift this team.
The hope for this season will be to keep the play off hopes alive with the season finishing with a trip to South Africa. There is little chance that they can go far in the playoffs, but it would represent some sort of accomplishment in a poor year for the team.
The hope for next year is the continued improvement of some of the younger players like Cian Prendergast and Sam Illo and to keep hold of key players like Mack Hansen. The departure of Ultan Dillan will hurt the team but there are players who are capable of replacing him.