Connacht is the runt of the litter of Irish rugby. While there’s various dynamics at play between Leinster, Munster and Ulster, the attitude towards Connacht is that they’re everyone’s favourite underdog and that it’s a bitch of an away trip, to mix canine metaphors.
Due to the last round of Heineken Cup negotiations and Leinster’s back-to-back victories, Connacht are in the middle of Heineken Cup seasons, despite finishing fourth of the four provinces in the league on both occasions. That is the state of affairs that the majority are happy with at the moment as none of the big three are compromised. Were Connacht to have an annus mirabalis and qualify ahead of, say, Munster in a season when an Irish team didn’t win the Heineken Cup then the attitude towards the western province would surely be different.
Connacht’s role in Irish rugby has been seen differently of late by the IRFU who have increased their budget allocated. With the academies in each province churning out a number of talented underage players with the ability to play senior rugby but with squads already full of experienced professionals, Connacht has the opportunity to act as an ‘overflow’ for talented players who want to get game time and not leave Ireland.
Four of those players left Connacht last season and were the subject of many column inches. One season on, we have a look at how their moves fared out. While Irish rugby is subject to much central influence/interference/overbearing meddling (dilute to taste), the Mole is of the opinion that it is ultimately the players’ decision where they want to play; despite the extolling of Stakhanov, this isn’t the Soviet Union. On that basis, the wisdom or otherwise of the move is ultimately down to the player.
Jamie Hagan: as an Irish qualified tight head, Hagan had a lot to gain in 2012 and must have thought that understudying Mike Ross with direct tutelage from Greg Feek was a sure fire way to further his career. In January 2012 it looked like it was going to plan, as Hagan started a Heineken Cup game against Montpellier and did his part in a goal line stand against the French heavies. With Ross guaranteed to be away on international duty, it looked like Hagan would get a run of games with a team at the top of the league. Hagan alternated with Nathan White during that period and one week after Ireland’s scrum debacle in Twickenham, Paul James of the Ospreys absolutely buckled him in a scrum underneath the Leinster posts. Hagan togged out the following week against Munster but only played another 20 minutes of rugby during the season. 2012 never really got going after a promising start. In all, Hagan started 9 games and came off the bench in another 9, for a total of 653 minutes or just over 8 full games during the season.
Nathan White was favoured for the bench slot for any big games remaining that season as Hagan struggled to regain fitness. Leinster quietly announced the signing of Irish qualified tight head Michael Bent from the Highlanders during the second half of the season, another feather in the cap for their scouting corps. With Tadgh Furlong making waves at underage level, tighthead looks a position of depth for Leinster and Hagan will have his work cut out to make an impact next season.
The move from Connacht didn’t work out well for Hagan. Declan Fitzpatrick came along the rails to claim his first cap against NZ and Ronan Loughney took over Hagan’s spot at Connacht and also earned a cap during the end of season tour. However, Hagan only turned 25 in April and plays in a position where his best years are ahead of him. He’s still available to Irish rugby, and should be for the next decade. It will be interesting to see where he ends up next season and if he can build on the promise he showed in 2011.
Sean Cronin: Gifted with acceleration and a good nose for running angles, Cronin looked like he would benefit from being under Joe Schmidt’s tutelage when he announced his move from Connacht. While Richardt Strauss earned the starting slot in the Heineken Cup final, Cronin came on and scored then doubled up in the Rabo final where he was selected from the off.
Cronin’s basics and habits improved throughout the season. Playing for Connacht, he had a habit of being bundled into touch as he seemed to take on a lot of ball near the side line. “Nugget” isn’t a huge man and he was often turfed out by the opposition’s heavies. He also had a nasty habit of turning over the ball, particularly playing for Ireland, and two spills, one against NZ in 2010 and another against France during a late charge in 2011, stand out. Cronin eradicated both habits from his game while at Leinster and his throwing also got more accurate.
In contrast to Hagan, Cronin’s move worked out extremely well as he picked up a Heineken Cup medal and scored a try into the bargain. Neck and neck with Strauss at Leinster, he is behind only Rory Best in the Irish squad. Cronin’s pace is a game changer and it’s likely that not having to start every game, or act as the principle ball carrier for a team with fewer attacking options, will lengthen his career.
Ian Keatley: While Cronin made his name at Shannon before moving to Connacht and then Leinster, Keatley came to the fore at Clontarf before skipping over the Shannon. The wheels came off Munster’s season after the loss to Ulster in the Heineken quarter final and Keatley played second fiddle to O’Gara for any of the major shows.
While being able to swap with a squad mate might save on wear and tear for a fleet footed hooker, it’s not ideal for a midfield general. Niall Quinn spoke on Off the Ball about getting into the Irish squad in Euro 88 and how Frank Stapleton made sure Quinn knew that Frank was El Numero Uno. Nothing untoward has come out about O’Gara’s treatment of Keatley but there’s no doubt from outside the squad who the Chairman of the Boards is down in Munster. Quinn, naturally enough for a man with one of the best attitudes in Ireland, said that he learned a lot about professionalism from Stapleton and that the experience was beneficial to him. Will Keatley be able to say the same in a few seasons? It remains to be seen and his move is a work in progress.
Munster’s style of play over the past decade and a half has largely been dictated by O’Gara’s abilities and limitations. Rob Penney has indicated that he’s not the biggest fan of that approach and with O’Gara firmly in his mid-thirties, it is possible that Keatley will be charged with more responsibility next season. It remains to be seen whether JJ Hanrahan is viewed primarily as a 12 or 10 by the Munster hierarchy. A midfield combination of Earls and Hanrahan would be lightweight but very fleet-footed. Munster’s signing of James Downey offers a very different skill set to Hanrahan at 12, all of which will affect the game that Keatley is asked to play.
Fionn Carr: Like Hagan, Carr was a product of the Leinster academy. Overlooked for a national call up despite a scintillating try scoring record for Connacht, Carr must have figured that playing for Leinster would increase his chances of playing for Ireland, despite competition from Luke Fitzgerald, Isa Nacewa, Dave Kearney and Andrew Conway.
The season didn’t work out according to any script the Mole had seen prepared. While Carr often looked dangerous with ball in hand, he didn’t get into double figures for try scoring. He showed a hungry appetite for work and didn’t shirk any of the graft demanded of him. He still didn’t get an Irish call up and Simon Zebo, Dave Kearney and Conor Gilroy all overtook him on the national depth chart. It’s difficult to make a call on whether Carr would have been better off staying put at Connacht. It might just be that Carr has found his level but if he had never gone to Leinster he never would have known, so it was a step he had to take.
It’s the Mole’s guess that of the four, only Hagan would reconsider his options. Keatley must have known that he was not going to take O’Gara’s starting spot so his season worked out much as anticipated while Cronin and Carr both ended up in a winning dressing room and can have no cause for complaint.
Where this leaves Connacht is open to question. Until it is possible to play for the western province and receive a national contract, the most ambitious players will look to leave. Without the ability to retain a core of their best players, Connacht will always be number four in Irish rugby. Connacht are viewed as a “development” province but their pack has quite an experienced, grizzled look to it, while the signing of Dan Parks looks like good business. Without the interference of national call ups, the opportunity to build a team of “good pros” should be welcomed and would make them increasingly more difficult to beat.
The success of the provinces has increased the profile and popularity of rugby in Ireland and balancing continued provincial success with the interests of the national team and the health of the game in the country is the challenge facing the IRFU. The objectives are more likely to be complementary than exclusive.