Friday 23 August 2019

Johnny O'Connor: No need to fly the nest to reach the highest level

Opportunity there out west for those who want to fulfil their potential

Eoin McKeon after training ahead of Connacht’s clash with Exeter
Eoin McKeon after training ahead of Connacht’s clash with Exeter
Aly Muldowney will be hoping to help Connacht overcome Exeter

Johnny O'Connor

At times last week it was hard to draw breath with all the new contracts signed, lads departing and rumours flying around.

Northampton have done well for themselves with JJ Hanrahan, my old side Wasps looks like a tailor-made home for Jimmy Gopperth, while my former colleague at Connacht, Ian Keatley, penned a new deal with Munster.

Rumblings of a possible move for Connacht lock Mick Kearney back to his native Leinster have also surfaced, and while it would be a huge blow to lose such a promising forward, it'd be no shock if he wanted to move back to his roots.

Kearney's progression since he came to Connacht is the perfect example of how a move west can benefit everyone, in the same way Keatley and Sean Cronin came through the system.

I remember when Cronin and Keatley arrived at the Sportsground back in 2008. Both lads were far from the finished article, they were talented and raw, but the improved game-time soon saw them thrive.

About a year after his arrival, Cronin was involved for Ireland. Keatley also played international rugby during his time in Connacht.

Kearney has done something similar. He was on the fringes of the Leinster set-up before he joined Connacht three years ago on the back of an impressive Ireland U-20s campaign.

He has been a great player for Eric Elwood and Pat Lam and the province has benefited from him playing here. He represented Emerging Ireland last summer. Whatever happens, and whoever he plays for next year, Kearney has been a success at Connacht.

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Players know they'll get the chance to impress here, but they also know the province is moving in the right direction and they want to be part of it.

Eoin Griffin was one player to leave Connacht last year and he has had a difficult season so far with London Irish. Injury meant his season started late, but it is only now that we are seeing the best of him in London. It can be tough going in a fresh environment.

When players make that decision to fly the nest, they need to be sure the move will benefit them. If there is an established player in your position at your new club, you might be waiting a while for your chance.


When Jamie Hagan moved from Connacht to Leinster a few years back it was always going to be tough for him. Mike Ross was, and still is, the Irish starting tighthead so opportunities were going to be pretty limited. In the end he also switched to London Irish, and is now back in Leinster as cover.

The same could be said for when Fionn Carr switched to Leinster to try and wrestle a starting shirt from players like Luke Fitzgerald, Rob Kearney, Isa Nacewa and Fergus McFadden.

This season we have seen Quinn Roux come in the opposite direction in search of games. He has been a revelation and has now signed a two-year deal.

There are lads for whom the move to Connacht worked out and some for whom it didn't, but none can say they didn't get the chance to show what they could do at the Sportsground.

As a result, I'm sure the next generation of Mick Kearneys, Ian Keatleys and Sean Cronins are all pretty keen to give a move west a go.

The path has been travelled before and guys have come out the other end as more experienced, hardened professionals and internationals.

But maybe the flow might turn to a trickle in the future. Under Nigel Carolan's leadership, the Connacht academy is producing some seriously talents players. Guys like Ultan Dillane, Eoghan Masterson and James Connolly won't be keen to step aside if a big name comes in, and nor should they.

I'm sure Connacht have identified the guys they'd like to join. They'll look at the players that are on the fringe of Leinster, Munster and Ulster and pick them up.

There will always be a place for quality players to complement the home grown lads here. Pat Lam is keen to build a strong squad and he'd welcome any such new recruits.

As we've seen in the past, if a move can benefit both parties, then why not? But when you want to move on again, remember far away hills are not always greener.

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