Tough opener against Glasgow, but Keane approach is working
At times, it felt like this new season would never arrive, but 24 hours out from kick-off at the Sportsground, like all Connacht players and supporters, I'm pretty excited for the show to begin.
Unfortunately, I'm going to have to sit this one out, but I'm already back training after my minor knee procedure, while I would have had to miss this game anyway due to the player welfare programme.
After I got back from the Ireland tour it was almost straight into the operating theatre and five weeks on from that my rehab is just about signed off.
The scope operation is a funny one: despite being under general anaesthetic you can walk out of the hospital on the same day. It is a small procedure, but then there is quite a bit of swelling to deal with after that.
During that couple of weeks off your feet you have to do small exercises to get the movement back, but thankfully you can hammer away on upper body weights. After a fortnight you can get back to light running, and in the last week I've returned fully to the pitch.
The training ground has been a happy place in recent weeks. While we were waiting for 'KK' (Kieran Keane) to link up, the other coaches were leading things, and there certainly was a bit of anticipation ahead of his arrival. You could see lads were really putting their hands up to impress.
KK had passed on his plans to Nigel (Carolan) and Jimmy (Duffy), and once he arrived he seemed to be pretty happy with the progress we had made. There were one or two tweaks that needed to be made, but that training hit-out against Munster was huge for us. Then against Wasps we had progressed another bit last week. It was a real solid performance, apart from the last half an hour or so, where we made a few defensive slip-ups.
So, to round off our preparation with a quality win over Bristol, the lads feel positive that all their hard work has paid off and that we're ready to take on Glasgow to open the new Guinness PRO14 season.
Due to the injury and our game against Wasps on the same day, I was given the honour of representing the club at the official launch of the new league at the Aviva Stadium. It was interesting to step into that role, seeing what's required of you as captain. We see all the training and match-day stuff, but you'd never think about all those off-the-field duties.
It was a pretty full on day of interviews, photos and video shoots, but it was great to meet all the other lads there. There is big excitement with the restructuring, so I got to say hello to the South African lads. They seem to be mad keen to get stuck in, so I think we'll see a competitive league. The two conferences will be interesting too, but we'll be pushing for those play-off spots and we're desperate to get back into Champions Cup rugby.
One of the best chats I had up there was with the new Zebre coach Michael Bradley. It was great to meet up with him again. When I signed my first development contract out of school, Brads was the head coach and he took a punt on me. I was supposed to go into the academy, but instead he gave me the development deal. He gave me my first chance, and I've always been really appreciative of that. For him to have another chance in the league is great, he's coming back after a really successful stint with Georgia, and I hope he goes well with Zebre.
Another guy around since my first days is Nigel Carolan, and having him as our backs' coach this year is a real thrill. From the age of 15 or 16, I was the summer academies with Nige and even at Ireland U-20s he was my backs' coach. I know the exciting brand of rugby he like to play: he encourages you to offload and to have a go. Under Nige, you are expected to enjoy your rugby, and he has brought that mentality with him into the senior squad. He's letting the backs have a real cut and along with KK, he is driving the attack side of things. Hopefully we can score plenty of tries and have a right go off set-piece as well.
The positive side of not being out on the field so far has been the chance to work with Johnny O'Connor again. There's not too many lads left that would have been around when Johnny was a player here, but we're the ones that know you don't want to get on his wrong side. But as well as having that steely edge Johnny is a top-class coach. He has such a strong rugby background, but also now has a multi-sport experience in strength and conditioning. He has really pushed me hard in recent weeks and I must say I've enjoyed it hugely. As a group, we have got a good kick out of working with Johnny and our new Head of Athletic Performance, Dave Howarth. I think it's good to have a couple of new faces around the place. There is a real fresh feeling in that department now, and it is driving us on to hit new targets in the gym.
With the new signings and the new coaching set-up there is a real different feel to the season, but we know that Glasgow are in the same boat as well. Their coach Dave Rennie only joined them two weeks ago, having come from the Chiefs like KK.
I'm sure they are both excited about pitting their wits against each other, but hopefully we are the team with the tick in the win column come tomorrow evening.
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