New Connacht Rugby coach Pat Lam has added a strong Kiwi flavour in completing his squad for next season.
The final two signings are both New Zealanders, former u-20 World Cup captain Jake Heenan, and James So’oialo, the brother of former All Black Rodney and Samoan international scrumhalf Steven. And with Chief’s captain Craig Clarke also a new recruit this season, it brings to eight the number of Kiwis/South Pacific Islanders on the Connacht squad.
So’oialo - a utility back who can play wing, fullback or centre, and is renowned for his big boot - is another player Lam has watched develop since coming onto the Samoan radar. Although Wellington born, the So’oialos are of Samoan descent with James making his debut for Manu Samoa in 2011. He is included in the current Samoan squad, joining former Connacht player Ofisa Treviranus and Hurricane Jack Lam, cousin of the new Connacht coach, and will join the province on July 1.
Pat Lam says So’oialo will fulfill a vital role as a utility back for the province which last season suffered a shocking amount of injuries in the backline. His secret weapon is his huge boot, which Lam believes could be used to kick Connacht over the line in tight games.
“I know there was some disappointment with Fetu [Vainikolo] leaving, but I think we have enough speed throughout the team and I am looking for consistency.
“ We have players who can kick from 40 metres, at a pinch 50m, but James can kick from 60 metres which I believe is a great tool to have.”
A significant signing is that of New Zealand’s former u-20 captain and openside Jake Heenan, whose recruitment was deliberately “kept under the radar” until confirmed.
His signing has prompted fresh concern from New Zealand about the increasing numbers of youngsters being lured to the Northern Hemisphere and then being "re-nationalised".
Lam says Heenan, who is a superb addition to the squad, had been identified by the Connacht recruitment group when establishing a list of possible new signings. An IFRU special project, Heenan is on a three-years contract which would give him Irish qualification - although he is of English and Irish extraction - his great grandfather being Irish,
Lam says Heenan, a former Whangarei Boys' High School First XV captain and a Blues development player, knows what Connacht is about and what the province is trying to achieve.
“Jake will blend very well with our squad. Although only 21 this year, he is very mature for his age, he is a leader, and has quality of character.”
Heenan will also join Connacht on July 1 after the completion of some university exams.
This brings the Connacht senior squad to 40 - the largest in its professional era. It is good news for the province as it faces into a third season of Heineken Cup rugby following Leinster’s 34-13 victory over Stade Francais Paris,
The win, Lam said, was “good forLeinster, for Irish Rugby, for Joe Schmidt, Isa Nacewa, who I have known for a long time, and it’s great for Connacht rugby”.
Lam was among the 20,000 spectators at the RDS, along with members of Connacht’s PGB, as part of a two-day planning meeting to define a five year plan.
“We have enjoyed achievements in the last five to 10 years and we celebrate that, but we are not satisfied. We want to keep moving and it is really encouraging for me coming in to see the board really determined to take it to another level,” Lam says.
Lam is obviously delighted to be in the Heineken Cup again, but like his predecessor Eric Elwood, would like to qualify on the province’s own merits.
“It’s where we want to be and that’s the way it is - like the French also have another team involved. It’s another opportunity, but the key for us is the domestic competition and that is a massive one.
“Getting into the Heineken Cup is not just about the team and the players, but about the province, and that’s what the PGB is looking at - right across the entire province - domestic rugby, marketing, etc, to try to take it to another level. The most important thing is to control what we can do - as a team and as a province.”
Connacht Rugby squad 2013/14
Props: Brett Wilkinson, Ronan Loughney, Denis Buckley, Rodney Ah You (special project ), Nathan White (special project ), JP Cooney. Hookers: Jason Harris-Wright, Dave Heffernan, Sean Henry, James Rael. Second Row: Craig Clarke (NIQ ), Mick Kearney, Aly Muldowney, Michael Swift, Danny Qualter. Back Rowers: Andrew Browne, Aaron Conneely, Mata Fafita, Jake Heenan (special project ), Willie Faloon, Eoin McKeon, John Muldoon, George Naoupu (NIQ ). Scrum-halves: Kieran Marmion, Frank Murphy, Paul O’Donohoe. Outhalves: Miah Nikora, Dan Parks, Craig Ronaldson. Centres:Eoin Griffin, Robbie Henshaw, Dave McSharry, Brian Murphy, Kyle Tonetti. Wingers: Fionn Carr, Matt Healy, Tiernan O’Halloran, Danie Poolman (special project ). Fullbacks:
James So’oialo (NIQ ), Gavin Duffy.