Connacht Rugby has been given a reasonable chance of seizing silverware in the Pro14 next season after bookmakers released odds for the 2019/20 campaign. Defending champions Leinster are understandably the favourites to win the trophy, but only four teams have shorter odds than Andy Friend’s men. Munster, Glasgow and Ulster are all tipped to challenge for glory, but Connacht are next in line at 20/1 along with Scarlets and Ospreys.
It follows a successful that saw Friend’s side finish third in Conference A and surge into the quarter-finals, where they suffered a narrow defeat to Ulster. Ireland coach Joe Schmidt responded by calling up Bundee Aki, Jack Carty, Kieran Marmion, Finlay Bealhamn and Ultan for his pre-season training squad. It was a reward for they're fine form over the campaign, while Quinn Roux could yet force his way into contention after missing out through illness. The upshot of the strong campaign is that Connacht is back at Europe’s top table after a two-year absence, having qualified once more for the Champions Cup.
They have landed in a tricky Pool 5 along with Toulouse, Gloucester and Montpellier, and they will have their work cut out as they bid to reach the knockout stages of the tournament. If you check out the best odds at top sites such as Nitrogen Sports and other big bookmakers, you will see that Connacht are 100/1 outsiders for the Challenge Cup. Some bookies will even go to 250/1 on Friend’s men, leaving only Benetton Treviso and Ospreys with longer odds.
Yet the experience of playing Champions Cup rugby will be good for the squad, and they can mount a serious bid for Pro14 success next season. Some fans may be disappointed to learn of the decision to cancel Sevu Reece’s contract, but it was the right thing to do. He had been set to move to Galway after delivering a phenomenal maiden Super Rugby season. The 22-year-old scored 22 tries as displayed brilliant pace, power, footwork and creativity during the Crusaders title-winning campaign.
Yet he pleaded guilty to assaulting his partner and Connacht decided to withdraw the contract to play with the province. He has since made his Test debut for the All Blacks and he looks like a fine talent, but Connacht did well to stick to their guns. “For Connacht, it was the right decision and for the IRFU,” said union chief executive Philip Browne. “At the end of the day, we have values and you either stand by your values or you don’t. It’s important for us that we live the values that we put up on the wall.”
It is now time for Connacht to put the saga behind them and focus on the new season. It begins with a trip to Scarlets, so they will be plunged right in at the deep end. Next up they are at home to Benetton Treviso before an away game against Dragons. The season concludes at Munster, by which time the province will hope to have wrapped up a playoff place. Both the Champions Cup and the Pro14 will be delayed for the World Cup in Japan.
Connacht will also have a new crest and jersey for the upcoming season. They have ditched the rugby ball from their logo and focused heavily on the eagle and sword instead. “As an organisation, we are continuously looking to evolve and improve everything we do,” said chief executive Willie Ruane. “Throughout that evolution however it is important we always remember where we are from and who it is that we represent. Our new logo design aims to reflect that evolution whilst also placing much greater prominence on the extremely strong core elements of the original Connacht Provincial crest.” Fans will soon have the opportunity to see it in action and they will hope it inspires their team to newfound heights next season.