When recently announcing the promotion of six players from the academy, Connacht coach Andy Friend was effusive in his praise for 20 year old Buccaneers lock, Niall ‘Bruce’ Murray: “Because he’s tall and lean there’s a bit of a narrative out there that he may not be physical enough. Mate, he’s very physical and he’s very smart too. He’s a good footballer, moves well and a very, very good lineout player defensively.”
Murray has a serious appetite for work and throws himself into things [he put in a commendable 11 carries and 28 tackles in Connacht’s heavy loss to Leinster in the RDS] but he is lightweight at this point, far more similar in development terms to where Ian Nagle and Dave Foley were for Munster a decade ago than the locks that Leinster are turning out of their academy at the moment [i.e. Ryan Baird and Jack Dunne]. He’s got good height at 201cm, that aforementioned high workrate and a competitive streak, but he’s more of a mid-term project than somebody ready to go. Is he going to be able to play in 20 Pro14 games in the second row at 20/21 years old and 105kg? I don’t think that’s the plan for him, and would be extremely doubtful of its success if it was the plan.
Who Do You Want In Your Team?
Connacht’s three best locks are Quinn Roux, the best scrummager; Gavin Thornbury, the best lineout option; and Ultan Dillane; the best overall rugby player. As the squad stands, you would imagine that coach Andy Friend wants those three locks [in one combination or another] in his matchday 23 for the matches he has prioritised over the course of the season. Thornbury and Dillane are 26 and Roux is 29 – a good age profile, possibly even a little on the young side in the immediate term. Thornbury is a little undercooked for a player of his age; he has only played in 38 first class pro games. However, an uninjured season can go a long way to remedying that. As a lock, typically the position with the longest careers in the pro game, time is on his side.
How Often Can You Play Them?
With regards to the number of locks in the squad, you have to first take into account the length of the regular season. Pro 14 teams have a manageable 27-game regular season: 21 league games and 6 cup games. There’s 3 locks in every matchday squad, so that’s 81 lock spots up for grabs in competitive fixtures – 54 starts + 27 subs – but still only 4320 mins [27 games x 80 mins x 2 locks on the pitch].
Next you look at your personnel, and make a realistic assessment of their playing potential. How many starts and minutes can you expect these players to play? The highest number of games that the current locks in the Connacht squad have played in a season are listed below:
- Roux – 24 [21+3] in 2016-17 [1497 mins]
- Dillane – 20 [17+3] in 2017-18 [1317 mins] and 2018-19 [1143 mins]
- Thornbury – 16 [13+3] in 2018-19 [896 mins]
That’s 60 games in total – not 60 starts – between three players, taking only their most productive seasons. Given that best case scenario, you’re still left with a further 21 lock spots up for grabs in the regular season. Connacht clearly need at least a fourth senior lock in your squad. That gives you four locks, each playing in 20 games/season – with 54 starts up for grabs and 27 bench spots, that might ideally work out at something like:
- Roux [18+2]
- Dillane [17+3]
- Thornbury [11+10]
- Lock #4 [8+12]
Ideally you would look to that Lock #4 to be a strong tighthead scrummager and a big body, a similar type of player to Roux on the tighthead side of the second row. Scrummaging is the biggest weakness in Dillane’s game, and if anything Thornbury is worse. He wasn’t born to push. Murray was a soccer player and a Roscommon Minor midfielder and only took up rugby as an U16; he’s got a young training age, and while he’s as fit as a flea, he’s a bantamweight as far as professional locks go.
That four lock split is a best-case scenario, and presumes that all four are fit for the entire season. The Mole has got some bad news, and I’ll break it to you now: it’s not going to happen. Long pre-season or not, Murray is going to need blocks off in order to build [or maintain, or even regain] size. He’s as lean as a stork, and with his workrate he’ll burn through calories like wood shavings.
Injuries, whether wear-and-tear or single incident, will also play their part. That’s just the nature of professional rugby. So Connacht need to carry a fifth option that doesn’t make Andy Friend put his hand over his eyes, somebody who the coach wouldn’t be wary of giving 400-500 mins. But on the other hand, if you’ve got a player playing that limited number of minutes, you don’t want to be paying him very much. Ideally you would look at Murray as your fifth lock – he’s a good fit for that role. That still leaves you leading a fourth lock.
Cillian Gallagher  is an option, but The Mole would put a question mark beside his name with regards to his position. In his rare starts over the last 20+ months, Friend has selected him as a lock; I tend to think that his talents are better suited to the blindside than the row.
There’s not really a big enough sample size to come to a firm conclusion, despite the fact that he has been on the radar for well over three years. He was a cracking U20 international, and his age grade accomplishments mark him out as a pro-level talent, but it seems like he’s rarely available for selection. Gallagher was playing for the Connacht Eagles in the B&I Cup as early as November 2015 [almost five years ago], and made his debut for the senior team in October 2017, but has only played in 14 games [7+7] at that level in the last three seasons.
- 2017-18: 3+2 [279 mins]
- 2018-19: 2+2 [171 mins]
- 2019-20: 2+3 [169 mins]
The Mole feels that those limited appearances are indicative of the difficulties that most young locks face in their first few years of pro rugby. I’m unsure as to whether Gallagher has the durability to work through a solid season in the row and provide the size, power and general strength that established locks give to their team. I think he can do more for the team from the side of the scrum than from its second row.
However, with Connacht’s specific personnel in mind, and taking into account the damage that the Covid-19 shutdown has done to provincial finances, it makes sense to split that Lock #4 role between two already-contracted players: Gallagher and Murray. It’s the most economical method, if not necessarily the optimal method.
Settling with a second row corps of Dillane, Roux, Thornbury, Gallagher and Murray, the next issue is deployment via selection. A coach will obviously want his best players to play a lot, but he doesn’t want them run into the ground. He also needs to provide room for growth for younger players, which means opportunities and minutes. He has to allocate starts to all his players in order to keep them focused and positive; a player who is always on the bench can become stale and dissatisfied. With those issues in mind, The Mole outlined a tentative breakdown of selections for the five locks:
- Roux [18+2]
- Dillane [17+3]
- Thornbury [11+10]
- Gallagher [6+6]
- Murray [2+6]
Combined lock selections: 54 starts + 27 replacements = 81 total
Who Do You Play Them Against?
The answers to this question may change over the course of the season depending on both your own team’s results and the results of competing teams, but it is an important analytical tool before the season kicks off.
If Connacht are in the European Challenge Cup, for example, do they afford it the same weight that they would afford the equivalent fixtures in the Champions Cup? What weight do these selections receive when compared directly against Pro14 games?
As the 2019-20 season stands, Connacht are in a ‘swing’ position: fourth in Conference B on 35pts, 3pts ahead of the Cheetahs, in the equivalent position in Conference A on 32pts. However, South African clubs are not eligible for European competition per EPCR qualification regulations: “The fourth-ranked clubs from each conference will play off for the seventh place. (NB South African clubs are not eligible.)”.
In trying to define what games should be prioritised, a number of factors are important: the status of the competition, the standings within the competition, whether the game is at home or on the road, and the strength of the opposition. We’ve taken the 2019-20 season as our fixture list, in order to put names to the teams in the various tiers. For example, Connacht’s key competitors in the Pro14 conference this season are the Scarlets, the Cardiff Blues and Benetton Treviso – next year it will be somebody else, but sure next year is anybody’s guess.
A] Champions Cup 
The Champions Cup is definitely the prestige event in Irish provincial rugby. Connacht have neither the first string talent nor the depth to win the trophy, and have never qualified for the knock-out stages. Pragmatically, there’s an argument for approaching it in the manner that Castres have in the past: put in the effort in your home games in front of your fans, and don’t let the away games upset your preparation for the following week’s league game.
Home gates pay the bills. Away gates don’t. Lots of supporters go to home games and very few go to away games; those who go to away games are mostly diehard fanatics and family anyway, and you’d have to do something dreadfully wrong to lose them. But losing games at home in front of your own fans prompts vocal dissatisfaction, and puts extra pressure on a coach that he doesn’t need.
However, European rugby is more important to Irish fans than it is to French fans. Their league is ancient and has a cultural value, whereas the Pro14 is a mongrel sans pedigree. Progressing to the quarter-finals of the Heineken Cup for the first time would be a genuinely noteworthy achievement in Connacht Rugby’s history. Aside from that, European rugby is – quite correctly – seen by Irish players as the jumping-off point for international advancement. They will typically tend to target those games themselves, making a decision for you.
B] Home Interpros 
The home interprovincial derbies are as important fixtures for Connacht as they are for the other provinces. Even if it is not strictly codified in the league system, there’s a pecking order in Irish provincial rugby. Connacht have always had to fight for their place at the table, and Connacht fans tend to be hungry for all three provincial scalps whenever they have a neighbour visit Galway. There is a slightly irrational priority afforded to these games, but it reflects how the majority of supporters feel and how the media portrays them.
C] Other Home League Games[7/8]
The rest of the home fixtures in the league [seven or eight, depending on the season] are split into two categories: teams in your conference, and teams not in your conference. Taking the 2019-20 season as our exemplar, Connacht’s key home non-interpro games this season are Scarlets [whose current standing shows 8 wins from 13 & 37 points]; Cardiff [6 wins from 13 & 29 points] and Treviso [5 wins from 12 & 29 points]. These are the opponents that the province is competing against most acutely: the teams on either side of them in the conference standings.
Connacht whipped Treviso 41-5 in the Sportsground in early October, and nilled Cardiff 29-0 in mid-February. The home game against Scarlets, scheduled for 20 March, was cancelled due to the outbreak of Covid-19.
I feel that those games are more important than the fixture against conference-topping Edinburgh. Realistically, Connacht aren’t competing directly against Edinburgh [10 wins from 13 & 47 points]: Edinburgh are three places and 12 points ahead of them.
On the other end of the league, the Kings are dreadful. Any side that Connacht fields should beat them in the Sportsground.
D] Away League Games
Away fixtures are sorted into four groups. Firstly, you have fixtures against weak teams where you have a better than usual chance of beating the home/away odds. Taking the 2019-20 set-up as our sample, these teams include the Ospreys [2 wins from 12], Zebre [2 wins from 12] and the hopeless Southern Kings [1 win from 13]; maybe you include the Dragons here as well [5 from 13], even though they’re doing better than usual this season. It doesn’t matter whether or not these teams are in your conference; you’re not competing with them for league positions. You’re playing them to pick up maximum points.
The second group is comprised of those teams you are competing directly against: as above, the Scarlets, Cardiff and Treviso. Connacht lost 18-10 to the Scarlets at Parc y Scarlets in the first game of the season; the other games have been postponed. These are typically going to be tough matches. While there is the chance to directly affect their league position, the strength of your selection is dependent on when the match is scheduled in the season: the closer to the denouement, the stronger you want your team to be.
The third set are the away interpros. These are very difficult for Connacht to win, and realistically you’re well served throwing your hat at them when you can afford to do so. If the ball is sitting up for you, go for it, but don’t kid yourself.
The fourth set [or the remainder] are few and far between: away games against non-interpro exceptional teams or conference leaders. The Scarlets of 2016-18, Glasgow of 2012-15, the Ospreys of 2009-2012. You’re not going to win these. Don’t f*cking bother.
2019-20 Regular Season [27 games – 21 League, 6 Cup]
The Mole has separated out Connacht’s aborted 2019-20 season into four tiers of games, looking at it as an exercise in selection. We have always said that selection is an art and not a science, but that doesn’t mean that it’s wilful. It’s about finding balance in the team to give yourself the best shot of winning, and not being bound by precedent – ‘Player A was picked in a certain situation, so if a similar situation arises, Player A must be picked again’ or ‘Player A got a shot in this game, so if there’s any consistency, Player B should get a shot in that game’.
The Mole is a firm believer in a coach having a plan for each player. The coach’s plan for a given player may differ from the player’s plan for himself – that’s okay. But if the coach doesn’t have a firm plan for a player, they should get him off the books.
As a coach, you want your best players playing in your most important matches; you want complementary partnerships in units; you want to avoid running players into the ground; you want to allow room for growth; you want to satisfy demands for gametime. There are a lot of competing factors. This sh*t is harder than it seems!
Tier 1 [11 games]
- Home Champions Cup Pool Stage  – vs Montpellier, vs Gloucester, vs Toulouse
- *Away Champions Cup Pool Stage* [2/3]- @ Toulouse @ Gloucester
- Home Pro14 Interpros  – vs Leinster, vs Munster, vs Ulster
- Home Pro14 Conference Rivals  – vs Scarlets, vs Cardiff, vs Treviso
- Home Pro14 games  – vs Glasgow, vs Edinburgh, vs Cheetahs
- Away vs Pro14 Conference Rivals  – @ Scarlets, @ Cardiff, @ Treviso
- Away versus Pro14 Easy Beats  – @ Kings, @ Ospreys, @ Zebre, @ Dragons
Tier 3 [4 games]
- Away Interpros  – @ Leinster, @ Munster, @ Ulster
- *Away Champions Cup Pool Stage* [0/1] – @ Montpellier
Tier 4 [2 games]
- Away versus non-Irish conference leaders  – @ Edinburgh
- Home Pro14 Easy Beats  – vs Kings
This was an interesting exercise to undertake. The Mole thought it was going to be a piece of cake to match game-by-game selections to our proposed overall [starts + subs] per player, but it actually took three goes to figure out the balancing act between deploying the players that we wanted to play in a given match, and sticking to the appearance number parameters that we made ourselves.
- Roux: 19+0, 1340 mins [+1 start, -2 sub appearances versus initially projected]
- Dillane: 16+5, 1220 mins [-1 start, +2 sub appearances versus initially projected]
- Thornbury: 11+10, 960 mins [as projected]
- Gallagher: 6+6, 560 mins [as projected]
- Murray: 2+6, 200 mins [as projected]
We ended up with a couple of spots on the bench in the Tier 4 matches that hadn’t been projected at all! Obviously we could have put Roux on the bench for both of them [and brought him up to his projected [+2 sub appearances] but it would be a case of the tail wagging the dog. If you have a plan for that guy to start all your big games and have him scrummage behind the tighthead all year long, you need to give him proper time off to keep him fresh. As we went through the priority games, there were very few where we felt we could leave Roux out of the starting lineup … but we didn’t want him to go over 1400 minutes either. There was a similar situation with Dillane – we wanted to keep his minutes below 1250 in order to maximise his explosiveness and provide room for growth for Thornbury to start more games.
Gallagher’s [6+6] is intended to represent his contribution as a starting lock and a sub lock; I’d look to have him start six games on the blindside as well to try and make a more informed decision on his best route as a player, as well as basically get value for his salary. If you give him the full game in three of those blindside starts and an hour in the other three, his season would read 12+6, 980 mins … very reasonable, but it would also be 3.5 times as many minutes in one season compared to his most productive single season to date [2017-18, 279 mins]. A big ask.
False Peak #2 … [Working Hard To Finish This]
A feeling that I had starting the article, and one that I still feel having explored the subject more deeply, is that Connacht would be a much more balanced pack if they had a player who could spot time for Quinn Roux on the tighthead side of the second row. I don’t like Thornbury as a tighthead second row, but I feel he’s a better option there than either Gallagher or Murray – one a part-time lock, the other very light.
I’ve always wondered what went wrong for the 199cm, 129kg lock John Madigan in Munster, and if he wasn’t – and isn’t – worth taking a chance on. He entered the Munster Academy before the 2013-14 season as a 19 year old, and was selected for the 2014 U20 RWC squad but forced to drop out at the last moment due to illness. In his second year of the academy, he picked up a shoulder injury in October 2014 that kept him out of action for the guts of six months.
Having played in all three pre-season friendlies under Anthony Foley in August 2015, he made his competitive senior debut for Munster a couple of days after his 21st birthday whilst in his third year of the academy, with a run-on start in a home win over Treviso. Unfortunately he again lost the bulk of the season due to a serious knee injury and a wear-and-tear shoulder problem that both required surgery. Still, he had done enough to earn a one-year development contract.
He returned to action for Munster A in October 2016 and featured twice for the senior team in November of that year, making a late appearance off the bench against the Ospreys in the league and then starting in the emotional win in Thomond Park against the New Zealand Maori the following week. However, Erasmus wasn’t convinced. That was it for Madigan at his home province. He was released in May 2017, 22 years old, and turned up at Massy RC, who play their rugby [geographically] below the flightpath to Paris-Orly airport, [qualitatively] in the ProD2. On a related note, four months later Munster brought in former Leinster, Mont de Marsan, Bedford Blues and Saracens lock Mark Flanagan on a three month loan deal.
Madigan spent three years with Massy, staying with them even when they were relegated to Federale 1 [the French third division] at the end of the 2018-19 season, before deciding on a move to former powerhouse AS Beziers Herault in the south of France for the upcoming ProD2 season.
The big Charleville man is naturally broad in the beam; he was 119kg as an U20. Now, at 25 years old, he’s listed at 129-130kg, 20 stones in old money. We wrote pretty recently about Irish rugby’s inability to accommodate and progress big-body second rows, and Madigan is another example. Erasmus is an outstanding coach and an exceptionally good judge of talent, but it was a curious decision to essentially freeze out such a young player, especially knowing before the end of March that Dave Foley was off to Pau and that Donnacha Ryan was off to Racing. Munster were left seriously short at second row the following season. Billy Holland started 27 matches with his ears taped up in the row, and Gerbrandt Grobler’s 427 mins [4+7] wasn’t worth anywhere near the media sh*tstorm that descended on the province for hiring a confirmed drug cheat. Madigan played in 26 matches [21+5, 1569 mins] for Massy that season, so clearly he had put his injury problems behind him. The ProD2 isn’t the Heineken Cup, but it’s a physical, competitive league.
False Peak #3 … Just When You Think You’re Out Etc.
In order for Connacht to remain competitive, Head Coach Andy Friend has to be as nimble and as convincing as Pat Lam was in terms of finding value. That’s value both from within your own squad, and value from non-premium sources.
Friend is a positive and likeable individual, and professional rugby is a strong lure. Connacht may not be a European powerhouse, but it’s a well-organised club, their fans are encouraging and dedicated, love an underdog, and Galway is an enjoyable place to live.
But optimising Connacht’s existing resources is the likeliest method of achieving a satisfying season for coach and squad alike. The Mole sees Gavin Thornbury as a player who is poised to make a big season happen for himself. He’s got outstanding size for the position at 204cm [6’8″] and 117kg [18st 6lbs], and is coming into his prime as a lock at 26/27 years old. More to the point, he seems to have finally emerged from the slow-paced and injury-strewn physical maturation phase that has long been typical of exceptionally tall players. With Connacht relatively short of locks, there’s a lot of gametime to be had … and with that, room for growth.
The former Leinster Academy player has had his own long struggles with injuries, most notably chronic knee issues, and the most pressing requirement that both Friend and his own career demand of him is that he stay fit and available for selection. What can you do about that though? He’s an assiduous trainer and, paradoxically for somebody who has missed so much rugby in his early 20s, what most would describe as naturally fit – he’s lean, angular and full of energy. But pro-rugby is a brutal and injurious game by its nature and current practice. Thornbury may be due an injury-free season, but who can tell how it’s going to play out?
Improving his set-piece work as a scrummager is an area which he can target without the vagaries of fate, misfortune or malpractice getting in the way. Jimmy Duffy is an excellent technical coach, Quinn Roux a strong example and Thornbury is no longer a neophyte as a pro second row. While his scrummaging abilities will likely never approach the standard of his line-out operations, the lag between the two is – again – room for growth.
Finally … If Anybody Is Still Here, It’s Over Now.
This article was originally supposed to be shorter. Most of them are, but this one in particular.
While not being unappreciative of Niall Murray’s efforts during the Leinster/Connacht game at the RDS, I was really surprised when he was announced as an addition to Connacht’s senior squad. 20 years old, with a year left on his Academy deal … was that early promotion really necessary? That prompted a look at Connacht’s second row personnel, then a short exercise in figuring out how best to maximise the use of a unit that is a little unbalanced. From there on it just metastasized.
In writing about the second row as a unit, I became more and more interested in both the outlook for the involved players and, more pertinently, how Andy Friend will use those personnel in the upcoming season. Establishing a hierarchy to the season when you don’t have the strength in depth to treat every match equally is a tricky business. From The Mole’s limited perspective, it will be an interesting sideline to follow in 2020-21.
One thing remains to be said [seriously, just one more thing]: I may have put too much emphasis on Quinn Roux’s importance as a tighthead-side scrummager. The season will tell. In any case, Connacht have a much bigger need for a starting No8 than they do for a back-up tighthead lock, and they have to cut their coat according to their cloth. The pandemic has devastated the finances of rugby clubs in the northern hemisphere, and the provinces are no different. Any money they have – and it may be none – should go towards securing somebody who can get them go-forward ball in phase play on a regular basis. But then get another tighthead-side lock!