Greater expectations for Connacht as new Guinness Pro 12 League opens

Mils Muliaina, with elbow strapped, trains with the Connacht squad in the final stages of their pre-season preparations at the Sportsground on Tuesday  before their opening round of the GUINNESS PRO12 kicks off on Saturday when Newport Gwent Dragons visit the Sportsground. Kick-off is at 5pm.  Photo:-Mike Shaughnessy.

Mils Muliaina, with elbow strapped, trains with the Connacht squad in the final stages of their pre-season preparations at the Sportsground on Tuesday before their opening round of the GUINNESS PRO12 kicks off on Saturday when Newport Gwent Dragons visit the Sportsground. Kick-off is at 5pm. Photo:-Mike Shaughnessy.

The games are about to begin and the goal is set. Connacht, with greater expectations than before, head into a new season with a single ambition - to qualify for the European Champions Cup through the Guinness Pro 12.

Connacht coach Pat Lam, with a year behind him, has a squad of his own choice - given resources - and with it comes more expectation. His back-up team has been extended - in addition to assistant Dan McFarland, he has a new backs and kicking coach in Andre Bell, a new head of fitness Paul Bunce, and Dave Ellis remains as skills coach.

Having finished in 10th place last season, Connacht need to improve their performance and their results to make the leap necessary for a sixth place finish. That means turning the seven defeats where they lost by seven points or less into wins; greater consistency to avoid a run of eight defeats like last season; and a more clinical attitude to turn created into points.

With new additions to the squad - particularly the Kiwi trio of All Black centurion Mils Muliaina, Bundi Aki and Tom McCartney - Lam has added some much-needed experience in key positions, and with youngsters like Robbie Henshaw and Kieran Marmion having gained valuable experience last season - and also with the Ireland squad - Lam believes the squad is in a better position this season.

“We are better prepared. I know these guys pretty well now and they know what we are trying to do and what we are building on,” he says.

“So our starting place for pre-season this year is totally different from last year . We are building on what we did last year so we are better prepared – but so is everyone else.”

Unfortunately Lam will be without several key players. Henshaw is restricted for player welfare, and should be available next weekend, but Kieran Marmion will be named as a replacement. Centre Shane O'Leary (quad haematoma ), winger Matt Healy (hand fracture ),Tiernan O'Halloran (knee ), Mils Muliaina (elbow ), Andrew Browne (knee ), Jason Harris-Wright (shoulder ) and Mata Fifita (shoulder ) are also sidelined.

As a result Lam may well give some youngsters their first start. Winger Niyi Adeolokun is in line for his debut, as is scrumhalf Ian Porter, while fullback and Ireland u-20 Shane Layden could also get the call up. Lam will be delighted to see wing Danie Poolman back to his best after injury struggles last season, while Dave McSharry is expected to start in the centre, where he could well partner Darragh Leader. Due to injuries and absences - where Tiernan O’Halloran is a big loss - Lam has been moving the back three players around in training to find the best combination, and he has options including Fionn Carr as a fullback or wing and Conor Finn in the centre.

The loss of experienced players Dan Parks and Gavin Duffy has opened opportunities for younger players, not least at outhalf where Jack Carty is expected to blossom this year. Lam must choose between the tried and tested Miah Nikora or Carty, who has been impressive in pre season.

Up front the forward pack is bigger, faster and stronger than in previous seasons after adding kilos during the close season. Denis Buckley, Ronan Loughney, Nathan White and Rodney Ah You vie for the front row positions, alongside hookers Sean Henry and Dave Heffernan. The second row choices are more abundant this year with veteran Michael Swift, young pretender Mick Kearney, Ali Muldowney, and both George Naoupu and Andrew Browne who can also pack down in the second or back rows, where John Muldoon will lead the squad. Willie Faloon, who spent so much of last season on the sidelines, deserves his return to action, while young Jake Heenan, so impressive last season, is expected to continue the push Faloon for the openside position. Eoin McKeon is expected to don the No 8 jersey.

“I know we are bigger, stronger and faster, but that means we are starting to catch up with the other teams. The Dragons are a massive team, so that is what we are up against, and thankfully bigger teams don’t always win.”

As always the opening game, particularly at home, is vital for Connacht’s season, and visitors Newport Gwent Dragons have been in fine pre-season form, demolishing Northampton Saints in their latest friendly.

“It’s massive, we know that. We have been building towards this all our pre-season about getting a good start. We have based our selection on the work that has been put in so far. I don’t want to put guys out if they are not ready and I don’t have to.”

Connacht, with changes on field and off field, including extensions to the clubhouse, are in positive form and that is expected to translate into bigger gates and results.

“We are determined to make this place a fortress, and the way we are going to do that is fight. We want our fans to know we are going to do everything in our power to win.”

• To qualify for the European Champions Cup automatically Connacht must finish in the top six (the top four teams of the four Pro 12 countries qualify - Scotland, Wales, Ireland, Italy - followed by the three highest ranked teams not already qualified ).

This season there will be a play-off between the seventh placed teams in the Top 14 and the English Premiership, and the eighth and ninth placed teams from PRO 12 (or the two highest finishers which have not already qualified automatically ). In this four team play-off, if the winner of the second tier competition, the European Rugby Challenge Cup, has not qualified for the Champions Cup by league position, they will receive one of the play-off positions given to their respective league.

 

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