Young guns giving old hand 'a new lease of life' out west
Well-travelled former Ulster second-row showing value of experience as season hots up
He may be only new in Galway, and has just 11 appearances for Connacht, but Lewis Stevenson brings years of experience. And his newly acquired skill-set has given him the confidence to dream of more silverware down the line.
The 32-year-old lock was about to quit the professional game before Connacht set their sights on him. He has never looked back since he joined up with the team prior to their pre-season trip to France.
The Antrim native has played with Ulster, Exeter Chiefs, Harlequins, the Ireland Wolfhounds and Emerging Ireland over the years, and Connacht coach Pat Lam saw him as the perfect fit to add numbers and a weight of knowledge to a young Connacht pack.
"It's going really well and I am enjoying it. I am in Galway city, about five minutes outside it, so it's not too bad," says Stevenson.
"It is a small city but rugby is really well supported here, and even in the short period that I have been here you can see it means a lot to have Connacht Rugby doing well."
Connacht aren't short of talent in the engine-room, but with injuries to Andrew Browne, and the Ireland duo of Quinn Roux and Ultan Dillane, Stevenson and fellow new recruit James Cannon have looked to fill the void.
They were the chosen combination for Connacht's impressive 66-21 Champions Cup victory over Zebre last weekend, and didn't disappoint, with the flawless lineout back to its best.
Stevenson was always likely to play rugby, once he started at Ballyclare Secondary School.
"I was always that bit taller and I started at No 8 and then moved into the second-row," he explains. "I was always big and rugby was a good fit. As soon as I started I loved it, I was playing with friends in school and that was a big part of it."
Ever since he joined the Ulster academy, Stevenson had the desire to excel as a professional. Game-time was vital and he signed with the Exeter Chiefs in 2007.
In 2011, Stevenson returned home to Ulster and in five seasons with them he made 89 appearances before being released early from his contract last season.
It has been an eventful career for Stevenson, but this seasoned campaigner has learned so much about the game. He believes Connacht could be on to something special with their young squad.
"Professional rugby teams are all fairly similar from my experience. They are all ambitious motivated lads, and are all similar from that respect," he says.
"The one thing that really stands out is the average age of the Connacht squad. They are a very young squad. There are only three or four players over 30. It's the big thing I noticed.
"I like to think I bring that bit of experience - and unlike some of the younger guys I have been around to different teams.
"And for me it's brilliant, I've had a new lease of life and I get on well with the lads, I enjoy the environment here."
But joining up with the reigning Pro12 champions brought with it its own set of expectations, and Lam expects his players to be able to maintain the high standards at the province.
Connacht are all about free-flowing attacking rugby. That means every player must be able to tune in and keep the ball moving. And that was something Stevenson had to learn to adapt to.
"The thing here is the massive emphasis on the skills and handling, and the forwards being able to pass like the backs," he says.
"That's something that I am maybe not quite as used to, especially playing in England. The forwards need to be able to play heads-up rugby.
"You have to view these things as challenges. Everywhere you go you just need to be better, and to be fair to Connacht everything is there if you want to put the work in and you want to get better - the coaches will help you.
"The things are there for you, you just have to utilise it in the best way you can."
Despite their brilliant run in Europe this season, Connacht have faltered in the league and their 29-7 defeat at Ospreys on January 7 was their eighth Pro12 defeat of the season - the reigning champions are finding it difficult.
"I don't think there is any way to sugar-coat it and we haven't put ourselves in the best position but again it's in our hands," says Stevenson.
"We just need to get ourselves back in form and play to our potential. We know that if we can play to our potential we can make a really good stab at retaining the title.
"Getting back into the Champions Cup next season is one of our goals. But especially at this time of the season, you just have to take it one game at a time. You need to get the performances out of it and the results will take care of themselves hopefully."
But Europe provides the fantastic side-story for this Connacht side. And after claiming the Pro12 title in May, they could be about to make even more history and qualify for their first ever Champions Cup quarter-final if they beat Toulouse.
"It's massive to have our Champions Cup fate in our own hands and those games against Wasps really showed we are capable of," adds Stevenson.
"Even the game over there where we probably didn't go as well as we could; if you go toe to toe with them like we did against Toulouse. . .
"They are two giants of European Rugby and we have a really good shot of getting out of this pool. We just have to perform to our potential."
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