After a best place finish in last season’s RaboDirect Pro 12, greater expectation surrounds Connacht Rugby’s new campaign which opens at the Galway Sportsground on Saturday (5pm ).
The addition of four experienced campaigners in Dan Parks, Nathan White, Danie Poolman, and Willie Faloon, allied to some up-and-coming youngsters, has ensured Connacht boasts a bigger squad than previous seasons, and coach Eric Elwood believes Connacht are in a “good place”.
“We probably exceeded ourselves last season with eighth place, and people are expecting a lot from us, and that’s fine. Realistically it’s about looking for improvement. It is about the detail - if we get more of the detail right than we did last year, and we can close out those games that were narrow defeats, then we are going in the right direction.
“ Obviously we had to let some players go, and we needed some changes, but all-in-all we did not have a big turnover like previous years. As a result we have had stability in pre-season and, allied with the good new players coming in, we feel we are in good place.”
Cardiff are the first visitors to Galway. A team undergoing rebuilding, they have lost a host of familiar names - several through retirement (Martyn Williams, Xavier Rush, Paul Tito, Deiniol Jones ) and are now under a new coach in Phil Davies. However they boast a strong backline with Leigh Halfpenny, Jamie Roberts, Tom Williams, and new signing Jason Tovey, while their pack contains power and pace in Sam Warburton, captain Andries Pretorius, and new French prop Benoit Borrust.
The Blues boast a “decent” record against Connacht and they will arrive in Galway “with a point to prove”, but Elwood remains positive.
“It’s important to get a good start. If you get a good start, then you have the momentum straight away. Whatever 15 we have on the park, I believe we will be good enough to win the game.”
However Elwood does have injury concerns and has delayed naming his match-day squad until today. Definitely out of action are scrumhalf Paul O’Donohoe, backrow Eoin McKeown, centre Brian Murphy, lock Dave Nolan, and hooker Jason Harris-Wright, while prop Brett Wilkinson is rested under Irish player welfare rules.
“ Everyone else is putting their hands up, but we will leave it as late as possible to give everyone a chance.”
Also doubtful are three big names Parks, White and Poolman, while injuries to all centres have hampered Elwood’s ability to nail down a combination for Saturday’s opener. Kyle Tonetti, Dave McSharry and Eoin Griffin have returned to training, in addition to new club recruit Mata Fifita, while Elwood could also slot in Matthew Jarvis or new recruit Poolman if needed.
Up front Ethienne Reynecke is likely to start if fully fit. He produced an outstanding opening half in the Connacht Eagles’ 13 - 6 victory over Munster A last Thursday, and, depending on other injuries, he can expect to form a front row with props Denis Buckley and Ronan Loughney. Seasoned campaigners Michael Swift and Mike McCarthy are likely to join forces again in the second row, while John Muldoon and George Naoupu will be in the backrow. Both new signing Willie Faloon and Johnny O’Connor are available for the openside, but the much-loved Galway native could get the nod for this opener on home soil with Faloon also likely to see action from the bench.
At halfback Miah Nikora will slot in if Parks is unavailable, and Elwood will be looking at scrumhalves Dave Moore and Kieran Marmion - the latter will be a strong candidate having impressed in all five u-20 World Cup matches this summer.
Gavin Duffy will lead Connacht from fullback, while Fetu Vainikolo and Tiernan O’Halloran are expected to play on the wings.
Connacht have extended their squad to 40 (including academy players ), which should enable greater competition and squad rotation. Connacht’s entry into the B & I Cup will also ensure fringe players and those recovering from injury will be playing competitive rugby throughout the season.
“Any team is only as good as its strength in depth, so whether Dan Parks is playing or Miah, we have better options in each position than last year,” says Elwood. “ The key for us is that there will be times when players will be called upon to play, so the point is that when they get the opportunity, they have to take it. I am hoping with the competitiveness we have within our squad, it will drive our standards up, drive our style, accuracy, and execution, and hopefully it will get us to where we want to be.
“We certainly like to think that with the experience and stability in our squad, we can turn over some of those narrow defeats had last year. However it is going to be difficult. While we have added new players, the likes of Edinburgh and Treviso, who finished behind us last season, have added 10 and 13 respectively, and they certainly will not finish where they did last year - that’s my prediction.”
Cardiff finished in seventh place, only one ahead of Connacht last season, but 13 points clear. Connacht, with seven wins and one draw, suffered 14 defeats - seven of which were by four points or less. It is that statistic Elwood wants to change. Much will be expected of Connacht’s new signings, but Elwood also believes his youngsters will have a major role to play.
“ We have added to the experience in the squad with Nathan White up front. We also have Dan [Parks] for his experience, game management, and ability to kick goals because we lost games last year due to our inability to finish off. We have Danie Poolman for his versatility, and, even though Johnny [O’Connor] is one our most passionate and emotional leaders, we needed another option and in Willie Faloon we have someone with Heineken Cup experience. They are four good signings. But we are also very proud of the young players we have and the reason we signed them is because they are young, hungry, and ambitious. It’s also very important for us to bring them through our academy as well as our young indigenous players.”