Connacht’s biggest season since the game turned professional kicks off on Saturday when the province travels to Italy to face Benetton Treviso in the newly-named Rabo Direct Pro 12 League. Having achieved a best place finish in the Celtic League last season, Connacht’s task now is to consolidate that position, while enjoying the glamour that Heineken Cup rugby will bring to the province for the first time.
Since Leinster’s victory in the 2010/11 Heineken Cup final paved the way for Connacht’s elevation, much has changed in the province. Necessary off-the-field developments continue apace - a new covered terrace will be ready for next week’s first home fixture, and some 3,000 season tickets have been sold - more than double last year’s take up. But that must now be matched by a Connacht team that will be under pressure, not only to pick up where they left off last season, but to secure more wins on a consistent basis both home and away.
“The challenge this year now is can we do it again?” says coach Eric Elwood. “Can we back it up again? Fifteen new players and that is their challenge. We do not want to take step back and it starts against Treviso on Saturday. That's the statement we need to make."
It will be difficult. Connacht have lost last season’s best scoring threats - Ian Keatley, Fionn Carr and Sean Cronin - all of whom improved immeasurably during their time in the province. For the most part they have been replaced by young and inexperienced talent. Much will be expected of Rodney Ah You, a talented but youthful 22-years-old, who must pick up the mantle left by the Leinster-bound Jamie Hagan. Miah Nikora, still out injured, must provide the direction and attacking flair needed in the pivotal outhalf position; while Fetu Vainikolo, unavailable due to a late World Cup call up for Tonga, has been earmarked to provide the potency and finish out wide. On Saturday, however, Elwood has some close calls to make, particularly in the crucial outhalf position where, in the absence of Nikora, Niall O’Connor and Matthew Jarvis vie for selection. The more experienced O’Connor had an indifferent pre-season, particularly with his kicking, and Elwood could plump for the former Welsh u-20 who performed capably against Saracens. Up front Ronan Loughney came through full training this week and he will be in contention to fill the loosehead berth which Dylan Rogers has occupied during the pre-season. The No 2 jersey will be a close call between Adrian Flavin and new signing Ethienne Reyneke, so too the openside where Ray Ofisa could get the nod over Johnny O’Connor who returned from injury two weeks ago. Mike McCarthy and Michael Swift can expect to fill the second row positions, while much will be expected from John Muldoon and George Naoupu in the backrow. Frank Murphy’s experience will be needed behind the scrum, where Tiernan O’Halloran, Brian Tuohy, Mark McCrea and James Loxton compete for the two wing positions. O’Halloran’s return to form and well-taken try against Saracens could see him preferred, alongside Touhy or McCrea. Gavin Duffy , the 29-years-old Ballina born player, will captain the side from fullback.
Elwood says his team is under no illusions of Treviso's strength, particularly at home, despite missing a dozen players on World Cup duty for Italy. "They are a very strong outfit at home. They are confrontational and direct, their set piece is strong, they love to maul, have very big ball carriers - that is the first threat we have to deal with,” he says. “It is important we play a tactical kicking game and our discipline has to be at our best because in Tobias Botes they have an excellent goal kicker. The key for us is the physicality. We have to match the physicality because we know from last year we had two boys with broken cheek bones from that match, and there is also the heat factor.”