Connacht still on the hunt for high-profile centre

Connacht scrumhalf  Conor O’Loughlin who has been forced to retire due to a persistent hip injury after eight years with the province.

Connacht scrumhalf Conor O’Loughlin who has been forced to retire due to a persistent hip injury after eight years with the province.

Connacht Rugby’s European fate for next season will be decided on Saturday when Leinster face Northampton Saints in the Heineken Cup final at Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium (5pm ).

A win for Leinster allows Ireland another team in the elite European tournament, ensuring an entry for Connacht next season.

The final comes within days of Connacht coach Eric Elwood having nearly finalised his squad for next season, while a strong pre-season fixture list has been confirmed with games against English premiership outfits Exeter Chiefs (August 13 in Galway ) and away to Saracens (August 26/27 ). A third pre-season fixture, yet to be confirmed, is pencilled in for August 19/20.

One final signing is still to be made with Connacht hoping to nab a high-profile centre after All Black Benson Stanley confirmed his decision to stay with the Blues in New Zealand.

At present 15 of the current squad are confirmed as departing. Robbie Morris had retired earlier in the season through injury, while fellow prop Barry Famasuilli, who was on a short term contract, had also left. The one remaining question mark is No 8 Ezra Taylor, but he too is expected to leave.

Thirteen new players have been signed - the latest is Galwegian prop Jamie Stephens who was confirmed this week. Thirty-years-old Stevens, who has played for the division one side for several seasons, featured recently in Connacht A fixtures with Russian side Enesei.

It ensures Connacht have six props, Brett Wilkinson, Ronan Loughney, and Derek Rogers, and Rodney Ah You, and new signings Stewart Maguire and Stevens.

Good news for the province is the decision of the International Rugby Board to allow new additions from Wales, Matthew Jarvis (Ospreys ), who plays outhalf, centre and fullback, and James Loxton (Cardiff Blues ), centre/wing/fullback, to qualify for Ireland.

Connacht Rugby CEO Gerry Kelly says although he is waiting for official confirmation, the IRB has indicated the two players are clear to play for Ireland after featuring in a Wales u-20 side which had been designated as Wales’ second team. Players who take part in a match for a country's second side are not normally allowed to change allegiance, but neither had played for Wales A or Sevens teams.

The two players will join newcomers Fetu Vainikolo and Mark McCrea (wing ), Paul O’Donohoe and David Moore (scrumhalf ), and Niall O’Connor (outhalf ), alongside regulars Miah Nikora, Keith Matthews, Eoin Griffin, Brian Touhy, Tiernan O’Halloran, and Gavin Duffy.

Connacht will also be blessed wit several backrow options next season. Joining regulars Ray Ofisa, Johnny O’Connor and John Muldoon are George Naoupu, TJ Anderson, Eoghan Grace, in addition to Connacht youngster Eoin McKeown.

Mike McCarthy and Michael Swift continue to lead a second row, that also boasts Andrew Browne and Dave Nolan, while newcomer Eithienne Reynecke, Adrian Flavin and Dermot Murphy are the options at hooker.

Pearse Stadium

Connacht has no intention of moving to Pearse Stadium in the event of qualifying for the Heineken Cup next season.

Gerry Kelly says although the province is open to using Pearse Stadium, the Sportsground is Connacht’s home.

“We are always interested in playing in other venues, but at the moment our home is the Galway Sportsground and we do not envisage that changing in the forseeable future.”

The need to move to another stadium would only be required if Connacht qualified for the Heineken Cup knock-out stages, requiring a 15,000 capacity.

“As there is no regulation for the pool stages, we will be using the Sportsground, although we would be making some improvements,” says Kelly.

The home grounds of Italian sides Treviso and Aironi have limited capacity, as does Northampton, which was forced to move to Milton Keynes for its quarter-final against Ulster due to its 13,591 capacity falling below the 15,000 threshold for a last-eight tie.

Although planning permission has been granted for a new stand on the opposite side of the existing greyhound stadium, a top priority for the branch will be the provision of cover for patrons. The branch is currently evaluating the cost of developing a full stand that would include extra seats and an official media facility, or a limited version - costing between €200,000 and €1.5m - dependent on finance and funding.

Connacht players in: Props, Stewart Maguire (Leinster ), Jamie Stevens (Galwegians ). Hooker, Eithienne Reynecke (Saracens/Stormers ); Backrow, George Naoupu (Kobi Steelers Japan ), TJ Anderson (Ulster ), Eoghan Grace (Exeter Chiefs ); Scrumhalf, Paul O’Donohoe (Leinster ), David Moore (Harlequins ); Outhalf, Matthew Jarvis (Ospreys ), Niall O’Connor (Ulster ); Backs, James Loxton (Cardiff Blues ), Mark McCrea (Ulster ), Fetu Vainikolo (Highlanders ).

Connacht players out: Props, Jamie Hagan (Leinster ), Rob Sweeney; Hooker, Sean Cronin (Leinster ); Second row, Bernie Upton (Japan ); Backrow, M McComish (Ulster ); Scrumhalf, Conor O’Loughin and Cillian Willis (retired ); Outhalf, Ian Keatley (Munster ), Backs, Troy Nathan (Glasgow ), Fionn Carr (Leinster ), Aian Wynne, Liam Bibo, Darragh Fanning, Shane Monahan, Niva Ta’auso.

Unconfirmed: Ezra Taylor (possible ).

Academy players also include Aaron Conneely, Kevin Marmion (scrumhalf /UWIC/Exiles ), David McSharry (centre UCD ).

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