Monday 26 September 2016

Waiting for opportunity to arrive in competitive back-row

Promising openside flanker determined to force his way into Pat Lam's first-team plans

Daragh Small

Published 02/10/2015 | 02:30

James Connolly is hoping to build on the experience of making his Connacht debut in France
James Connolly is hoping to build on the experience of making his Connacht debut in France

James Connolly hasn't featured in the Pro12 yet but when his time comes, it's likely the Connacht openside flanker will take it in his stride.

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Even an experienced international finds it difficult to play away in France at the best of times. But at the tender age of 21, the Naas-born youngster made his debut there.

Pat Lam's men had put five tries and 42 points on Bayonne in the European Challenge Cup, seven days beforehand. However, with a treacherous Christmas schedule around the corner, Connacht sent an entirely different starting 15 to Stade Jean Dauger for the return fixture in south-western France.

Connolly flourished and he played all 80 minutes on the blindside of the Connacht scrum as his team fought back from 27-16 down with half an hour to play, to win.

"It was an amazing experience," he recalls. "I will always remember Dan McFarland bringing me into the office on the Monday morning before the game.

"He sat me down and the first words he said were: 'Well James, you are going to be starting in Bayonne.' I was just taken aback straight away, I thought, 'Oh my God'. I would have expected to be on the bench, but I started and seeing my name and my picture come up for selection was a bit surreal.

"We had a second-string team going over to Bayonne. Pat was trying to rest a few of the players. So we were against all the odds going over to France.

"It was a massive task to play a French team away from home with the crowd and everything. It was amazing how we pulled it off. I will never forget that," he says.

It finished 29-27 and that result put Connacht in prime position for qualification from Pool 2. They pulled through but had to face a fearsome Gloucester side for the quarter-final in Kingsholm.

Connolly was selected amongst the replacements and came on for Eoghan Masterson with seven minutes left. Connacht fought their way back from 14-0 down at half-time, but only had a 65th-minute penalty try, and conversion from Jack Carty, to show for their efforts.

That was the end of their 2014-15 Challenge Cup adventure, yet Connolly and Connacht, would return to Kingsholm for another epic joust. Connacht signalled their intent with their second-half display the first time around, and they came so close to pulling off a massive shock in the Champions Cup play-off in late May.

Replacement

Connolly came on as a late replacement, and Carty looked to have sealed it with a late penalty for the visitors, but Connacht were pipped in extra-time.

"That was an unbelievable experience. I was brought on with about eight minutes to go, but I played a lot longer. I was shocked with the way it went.

"There was about 8,000 people there and the atmosphere was unbelievable. With Champions Cup qualification at stake, it was electric out there. It was the biggest crowd I have played in front of, and I was taken aback by it.

"It was a great experience playing against top players - internationals like Jonny May and the likes. Their back three were really in form. When we were trying to get our D-line in shape, any line-break they made The Shed erupted. I remember not being able to hear my own voice.

"We really could have won that game, but there was just a few little things that let us down. In the last few minutes, a few decisions by the referee didn't go our way and the bounce of the ball didn't either.

"There were tired bodies out there and we made a few bad decisions which cost us. But overall we were proud of ourselves and we took a lot from that."

So there is no shortage of experience for the final-year academy star to take through to 2015-'16, as he pushes for his first Pro12 appearance.

Connolly lives with first-team regulars Eoghan Masterson and Ultan Dillane, so there's heaps of inspiration around him on a daily basis.

The former Naas RFC clubman and Newbridge College star joined Connacht after the then director of rugby in his school, Conor McPhillips, put in a call.

Connolly had a chance to make an impression with the Connacht U-19s, when they were short on numbers, and he didn't disappoint.

He was kept on, and three years after he joined the Connacht academy, the aim is to make the elusive step-up to the first team.

Masterson, who he and Dillane refer to as 'the Dad of the house', also plays in the back-row, and Connolly wants to replicate his rise in 2014-'15.

"Me and Ultan look up to Eoghan. He is a great player on and off the field. He does everything right and he is looking after us in the house.

"Where he has come from in the academy, he got his shot and took it. He didn't think anything about it, he seems to have really made a spot for himself this year. All credit to him.

"I want to try and get a few more caps for Connacht. I am still in the academy but I would love to drive towards a development contract by the end of the season. That would be a really big goal for me. Just to make my way into the senior team full-time.

"Get a few games under my belt, any opportunity I get I want to make the most of it and better my game every day in training. After every week of training, I always come away with something new, and I cannot wait to get my chance again."

Irish Independent

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