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Connacht must be allowed to develop into fourth force

Connacht, with a Taoiseach and President already in situ, were denied an unlikely 2011 hat-trick when Mike Tindall was omitted from the Gloucester squad for yesterday's game, thereby denying the province their own particular royal visit.

While Galway's renowned hospitality industry may well have been disappointed, his absence won't have caused any concern for the Connacht playing staff and management such have been the difficulties of the past couple of months.

Eight successive defeats was hardly ideal preparation for yesterday's game and a ninth really puts their backs to the wall. Are the perennial underdogs of Irish rugby permanently fated to that role? And if they are, is it right that they are?

That Connacht have responded magnificently to the challenge of the professional game since its inception in 1995 is beyond doubt. They had many obstacles to overcome and battles to fight, some in places where support would have been expected and appropriate. From a threatened extinction in 2002 due to a proposed cut in funding from the IRFU, they have rebounded to take their place in the top tier of Europe with the support not only of the IRFU, but of over 3,000 season ticket-holders, of the business community and of government, local authorities and state agencies.

The Sportsground, for so long the dreaded destination of the other Irish provinces, has undergone significant refurbishment and is now an altogether more hospitable venue for spectators, while still conceding nothing to visiting teams.

In the backroom too, their marketing operation has been ramped-up significantly with positive results and their recently-formed Professional Game Body, under the chairmanship of Jimmy Staunton and including former Connacht stalwart and international scrumhalf Conor McGuinness, is making significant progress less than a year into its existence, having been tasked with running the professional game in the province.

It would appear therefore that the investment of such a breadth of stakeholders is beginning to generate real momentum behind the Connacht team, and behind the development of the game within the province, notwithstanding a disappointing autumn on the field of play.

It's this new-found off-field momentum that Connacht must maintain above all else and in doing so they need look no further than their traditional rivals in the lower reaches of the league, the Newport-Gwent Dragons, who are finally reaping some rewards from many seasons of toil. This season the Dragons have begun to emerge as a force to be reckoned with on the back of the experience gained by such as 23-year-old Danny Lydiate and 21-year-old Toby Faletau in Wales' recent World Cup campaign.

While Warren Gatland, Shaun Edwards and their colleagues in the national coaching team can take a lot of credit for polishing the diamonds, what cannot be overlooked is that the raw material was initially exposed to top-flight competition at club level with the Dragons and wouldn't have been available for finishing-off at international level without that exposure.

In a week in which 21-year-old rising midfield stars Eoin Griffin and David McSharry committed themselves to the province until at least 2014, it is worth reflecting on Connacht's future, not for its own sake but for the sake of Irish rugby.

These are great days for the game in this country, and indeed for all rugby people at all levels of the game right across the island, and we should make the most of them; making the most of them however is not just about enjoying them, it's also about exploiting the success as a foundation for the future.

Asking Connacht to compete at this level with a squad of a mere 36, seven of whom are on development contracts (12 of the 36 are injured this week), is putting them into the ring with one hand tied behind their back, and while it takes a lot more than one season to assemble a competitive squad, lessons must be learned from the current predicament. A lengthy injury list is by no means unusual in the modern game -- just look at Munster this weekend -- so it must be galling for Connacht people to look at their two front-liners from last season who moved to Leinster failing to make their match-day 22, and the third only making the bench. What a difference that trio of Fionn Carr, Jamie Hagan and Seán Cronin would make. Indeed, they too would benefit from starting Heineken Cup matches regularly.

Another of last year's front-liners, outhalf Ian Keatley, is on Munster's bench.

Connacht's designation as a development province some years ago was a worthy move, but maybe the time has come to exert tighter controls over players covered by the scheme, particularly around their departure from the province.

It's generally accepted that a strong provincial set-up in Ireland, as in Wales, is a prerequisite for international success and, like it or not, such a strong set-up will always have at its core more than a smattering of non-Irish qualified players. Their input is at least as relevant as that of their non-Irish colleagues in coaching positions, and deserves similar respect, something at times only grudgingly given.

Having said that, there are times when they're something of a soft option; witness the presence in the Ulster squad this weekend of Stefan Terreblanche, the 36-year-old former Springbok fullback, as emergency replacement for injured New Zealander Jared Payne. Regrettably, instances such as these can and do besmirch the reputation of others and tarnish the image of a system which, on the whole, functions well.

Another inevitable consequence of the system will be the occasional domination of particular positions by non-qualified players, the front-row being the obvious example.

This is where the fourth province can play an important role, diluting this by creating additional opportunities for Irish-qualified players to compete.

The Dragons have done it to good effect in Wales, and are now in the process of taking their place on a level with their traditionally stronger neighbours Cardiff, Ospreys and Scarlets; Connacht can do likewise in Ireland given time, and the patience and continued support on the part of their recently-acquired breadth of stakeholders.

Sunday Indo Sport