Back-row battle in the offing as competition heats up
Portlaoise man stepping up from academy and ready to fight for place after busy summer
At just 22 Eoghan Masterson was handed the captain's armband for a pre-season warm-up game away to Castres on August 14.
It capped off a remarkable progression for the Portlaoise native, who is only in his third season with Connacht: he previously led the Ireland U-18s into battle and was the Connacht Eagles skipper last term.
Masterson, who has also lined out for Scotland at underage level, didn't even have a schools rugby background to help him prosper.
Academy manager Nigel Carolan gave him his chance, however, and he duly delivered, he now has 17 senior appearances in two seasons with three tries as well.
Connacht's efforts went unrewarded when they failed to qualify for the Champions Cup after a controversial defeat to Gloucester at Kingsholm, but nine players were called up to the Emerging Ireland squad for the Tbilisi Cup this summer.
Masterson was part of that contingent and after three appearances, two of which were starts, he came back with a wealth of knowledge as well as a trophy.
"It was a great experience for me. It was a big surprise but I was absolutely delighted at the end of the season to get selected for a tour like that," he says.
"There was some good quality back-rows there as well with the likes of Rhys Ruddock and Jack Conan, so it was nice to play alongside players like that in the Irish jersey.
"Really it was an honour to go on that tour. These are guys who are in Irish camp and on the fringes of the international squad and that is where I am hoping to go and trying to get to. So it is a good barometer for me.
"Joe Schmidt and some of his coaches came out to watch that final game so it was good to be able to play 80 minutes in front of them.
"I started on the blindside alongside Dan Leavy and Jack Conan in the second game. And then unfortunately Rhys broke his arm so he was ruled for the last game and I got the start that one again.
"It was great to see so many Connacht guys there. I know from speaking to some of the lads who have been on a few tours like Eoin Griffin and Tiernan O'Halloran, normally when they are heading out there is only two or three Connacht fellas out there.
"So it was a nice change for them to have a few more familiar faces around and obviously it was great for me as well as a young lad going out on that kind of tour."
It's a big year for this young Connacht squad - just three new players have been signed. Head coach Pat Lam has instead decided to place confidence in the academy.
Many of those players have now signed full-time contracts, with Masterson one of the fledgling brigade who will hope that the painful lessons they suffered last year will serve them well in the long term.
Fellow academy prospect James Connolly joined him on the field at Kingsholm as Connacht fought to the depths of extra-time - they could have won the game twice only to fall at the final hurdle, 40-32 in the Champions Cup play-off.
"We probably had the beating of them in that game, but it was just a few 50/50s that didn't go our way," laments Masterson.
"Hopefully we can use that as a bit of a motivator to kick on this year now and learn from the mistakes, learn how to close a game coming towards the 80 minutes. Hopefully we can see them ones through rather than the likes of Cardiff and Gloucester beating us.
"Definitely they were cruel lessons to learn but hopefully in the long run they will be valuable lessons."
Masterson may have come to the end of the 'academy' chapter of his life, but it only gets tougher now and he wants his game to develop further this season.
Outside of the game he keeps up his studies and is in the final year of his Geography and Economics degree from NUI Galway.
That's another chapter he can then be done with but in the meantime it makes for an interesting 12 months.
"I have stepped up from the academy now and I'm into the swing of things with the full senior squad," says Masterson.
"I am getting more and more comfortable amongst the senior players and I feel I'm finding my voice a bit more on the training pitch.
"Your performance is everything though, so I'm just focusing on playing as best as I can and then if I am playing well hopefully I can have a bigger role with Connacht Rugby.
"It could have been a bit of a daunting task being put down as captain against Castres, but I know the lads so well at this stage and I wasn't trying to be something I am not.
"I was just focusing on my own game as best as I could and said a few words here and there.
"I didn't try and come out with any 'Gladiator' speeches or anything like that.
"It was a massive honour and I am very privileged to have led the team out there. It was an improved performance from the defeat to Grenoble.
"It was not the result we wanted - we got that against Munster and we are in a good place and moving in the right direction towards the start of the season and the game against Dragons."