Connacht's young guns continue to deliver on promise
Published 01/12/2015 | 02:30
There is something eminently likeable about what Connacht are building under Pat Lam and it's not just their expansive style of play.
When the New Zealander arrived on these shores two years ago, it would have been easy to tear up the script and start afresh but Lam has fully bought into the Westerners' mentality and both the players and the supporters are beginning to reap the rewards.
Sure Bundee Aki grabbed the headlines for what was a stunning finish to clinch Connacht's first win in Thomond Park in 29 years, but at the core of the famous victory was a group of young players who have come through the province's academy.
In the immediate aftermath of their quite brilliant win, John Muldoon, a player who typifies everything that Connacht rugby is about, neatly summed up the province's current state.
"Someone asked me what's the difference between this year and other years; we have a spine and a nucleus of a Connacht team with a couple of very important imports and fellas from other provinces.
"More importantly, we have a lot of young fellas able to step into the role."
Of the starting XV, nine players came through or, in a couple of cases, are still rising up the ranks of the Connacht system while six of the seven replacements have followed the same path.
Shane Delahunt (hooker) and James Connolly (openside flanker) both started and impressed while Sean O'Brien (No 8), a former captain of the Ireland U-20s, came on for his first appearance in the Pro12.
Connacht Eagles have largely struggled in the British and Irish Cup in recent seasons, especially in comparison to the likes of Leinster and Munster's 'A' sides but they have never deviated from focusing on the 'bigger picture'.
The role that Nigel Carolan has played in allowing Lam to be able to call upon so many talented youngsters cannot be understated either.
Carolan is now also Ireland's U-20 coach and he has worked wonders with the majority of players who are now starring for Connacht's senior side since being appointed academy manager in 2004.
As well as the players who have come through the academy, Craig Ronaldson and Matt Healy have both also proven that the Ulster Bank League remains a hotbed of talent after they starred for Lansdowne before earning professional contracts.
With the doom and gloom following Ireland's World Cup exit still lingering like a bad smell, Connacht continue to offer plenty of cause for optimism.
Of all the starting back-row players on show at Thomond Park, few people if any would have guessed that it was Connolly who was making his Pro12 debut.
Up against Jack O'Donoghue, a player who is also destined for the bigger stage, Connolly (22), nullified his opposite number as well as CJ Stander.
Lam was without seven players last weekend and he will now have to plan without Robbie Henshaw (fractured hand) for the next six weeks as well as Denis Buckley (sprained ankle) and Eoghan Masterson (fractured thumb) for three.
Henshaw's absence would damage any team in the country, perhaps even in Europe based on current form, while Buckley has been outstanding all season and will hope to be included in Joe Schmidt's training squad after Christmas.
Despite the latest injury setbacks, Connacht will continue to show that their young guns are more than capable of stepping up to the mark.