Connacht have confirmed a couple of really intelligent signings in former Bristol and Leinster hooker Jason Harris-Wright and Galwegians centre/fullback Brian Murphy.
The Mole has written before about Connacht’s lack of depth in the No2 jersey, and he thought that they had missed a trick when Denis Fogarty announced that he would be playing his rugby next season in the ProD2 with Aurillac. The Mole had completely forgotten that Elwood has been at pains to recruit players whom he and forwards coach Dan McFarland trained for the Ireland U20s five or six years ago – Paul O’Donohoe, Kyle Tonetti and Niall O’Connor were all Elwood acquisitions from the 2007 U20s team that won the Grand Slam – and as such, JHW was always going to be a likely target for the province.
The addition of Harris-Wright improves the age profile of the hooker position and gives the province the depth that they will need to compete in three competitions next year. Adrian Flavin has never been less than a whole-hearted servant of the province, and South African Etienne Reynecke has been a sparky addition, but it’s difficult to survive the season with just two senior hookers in your squad. Harris-Wright has built up a good tranche of gametime with Bristol – certainly a hell of a lot more than he would have seen at Leinster – and isn’t the inexperienced tyro that left his native province a year ago. He might have stayed longer with Bristol, but their failure to beat the Cornish Pirates on aggregate over two legs in the recent RFU Championship play-off put an end to any hopes he had of playing in the Premiership next year.
The western province have recently announced that they will be taking part in the British & Irish Cup next season, and while it’s definitely a worthwhile development tool that will see academy players exposed to a higher standard of rugby, they were looking distinctly short for jersey-fillers in the middle of the front row. Harris-Wright has worked under some excellent coaches at Leinster in Joe Schmidt, Jonno Gibbes and Michael Cheika, and his season as a starter for Bristol will stand him in good stead and sharpen his ambition to first try and win and then keep the No2 jersey in Connacht for big games.Murphy is a very astute pick-up as cover for the young centre corps of Tonetti, McSharry and Griffin. Elwood’s last contracted centre was ex-league bosh-merchant Henry Fa’afili, who – in terms of what he brought to Connacht on the pitch – was just a waste of money, and a poor, poor use of resources. The big lad wouldn’t pass and wasn’t any great shakes as a line-breaker, which left young, talented backs like Griffin and O’Halloran starved of ball outside him.
The Mole isn’t pretending that there’s an endless supply line of untapped talent in the league, but if you know what you’re looking for, you can occasionally find a guy in there that’ll do a job for you at Pro12 level. Alan Quinlan wrote in a recent Irish Times column that when he was coming back from injury during his Munster career, he’d dip his toe in the water in the AIL … and often regret it.
“Club players today are rarely significantly less impressive physical specimens than provincial players. Trust me, I know all about it – the last time I played a club game was in 2008 when I was coming back from a thumb injury and got some gametime for Shannon against Galwegians in Coona. They beat the s**t out of me. Ivan Muldoon, brother of the Connacht player John, was playing in the backrow for them and he was all over me. Never mind the decade of strength and conditioning I’d put in as a professional, a strong guy is a strong guy and the club game is full of them.”
Leo Auva’a is one of those ‘strong guys’ – James ‘Germany’ Coughlan was another when he was first picked up by Munster some five seasons ago – and he played in 19 of Leinster’s 22 regular season games in the Pro12. He hasn’t featured in a HEC matchday squad at all, but he has still made a big contribution to the squad – not least with his five tries in the league competition. Joe Schmidt recognized that with Heaslip’s availability severely limited due to Ireland call-ups, he needed a second No8 in his squad, and not a fourth blindside playing out of position.
There are a couple of pieces of the puzzle which are invaluable in any northern hemisphere winter league: a rock-solid goal-kicker and a big, ball-carrying No8 to get you over the gainline. A lad like Thomas ‘The Tank Engine’ Waldrom might look a bit ordinary at international level, but he’s worth his considerable weight in gold to Leicester in the Premiership. At 193cm [6’4″] and 125kg [19st9lbs], they don’t come much bigger than Auva’a.
Barry O’Mahony is another player who springs to mind. Currently captain of Clontarf, the openside flanker bagged two tries and the Man of the Match award for the Irish Clubs XV vs the Scottish Clubs XV in February. The former Munster Academy man’s strong performance saw him invited to play for Munster ‘A’ against Leinster ‘A’ in the cracking Good Friday British & Irish Cup semi-final at the RDS, and he contributed handsomely, blocking down a kick from Leinster outhalf Noel Reid and reclaiming the ball for a try that got Munster’s comeback underway.
The AIL is no longer the pathway to international rugby that it once was, but the pro game in Ireland misses out on some talented players first time around. If you can identify a clear position of need and have a decent couple of scouts who know what you’re looking for, there’s value to be had from the AIL.