How Connacht could line up after summer of massive change
Connacht are much changed but there is method to the high player turnover.
Last Monday saw Connacht and Ulster return to their respective training pitches as the return to competitive rugby edged closer. Andy Friend's squad reassembled at The Sportsground looking a hell of a lot different that when they were last together.
Since the season was put on pause, due to the Covid-19 pandemic, 16 players have left the province. Among the high-profile departures are:
- Coby Fainga'a
- Niyi Adeolokun
- Kyle Godwin
- Tom McCartney
- Robin Copeland
- Eoin McKeon
- Darragh Leader
12 senior pros have moved on while four academy players have been released. In their efforts to replenish the squad, Connacht have brought in four senior players, promoted six from their academy and have secured a one-season loan of Munster's Alex Wootton. Friend commented:
"Alex is a very exciting back three player who has all the talent to take his game to the next level. His versatility across the back line will also help us as we look to compete on both fronts next season."
Wootton has scored 13 tries in 39 games for Munster and brings league and European experience to the party. His arrival shores up an area of the squad that was looking pretty threadbare.
Connacht made a habit, over the past decade, of shopping for prospects in Australia and New Zealand but the IRFU have strongly nudged them down the path of providing a home for players that have found their way blocked at their own provinces. Given the success of John Cooney, Tom Farrell, Cian Kelleher, Dave Heffernan and Conor Fitzgerald in recent years, there is merit to the idea. All the Westerners need is buy-in from their new recruits.
Connacht have done well in getting in Ireland U20 stars Oisín Dowling and Jack Augnier (pictured below) from Leinster while they have a couple of experienced recruits in the former Munster duo of Conor Oliver and Sammy Arnold.
Connacht are set to resume their 2019/20 season with an inter-pro clash with Ulster at the Aviva Stadium in late August. Qualification for an expanded 2020/21 Champions Cup looks to have been secured - Guinness PRO14 officials are going off league standings when the season was paused - but they are highly unlikely to make the league semi-finals. They are already out of the 2019/20 Champions League.
The Connacht hierarchy have taken a pragmatic approach and, with only two competitive games likely when the season resumes, there is no need to overload their squad. Should talks on the global rugby calendar breakdown, and the 2020/21 season commence in mid October, Friend may seek to strengthen his squad further.
In terms of academy promotions, the province has handed professional contracts to Conor Dean, Jordan Duggan, Seán Masterson, Niall Murray, Colm Reilly and Peter Sullivan.
With those five senior player arrivals, and glut of departures, in mind, we had a look at how Connacht could line up when rugby returns. This is not necessarily their strongest side, per se, but how Connacht could accommodate all five players into their starting XV.
REPLACEMENTS: Paddy McAllister, Shane Delahunt, Finlay Bealham, Quinn Roux, Sean O'Brien, Caolin Blade, Connor Fitzgerald, Tom Farrell.
With the new recruits in the starting XV, that leaves some big names in reserve and the likes of John Porch, Cillian Gallagher, Gavin Thornbury, Tom Daly, Peter Robb and Stephen Fitzgerald are on-call too.
The situation may not be as bleak as the player exodus would suggest, but Friend will need each of the new recruits to work out and he will need his academy to produce the match-ready goods.
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