No 7 puts ankle op on hold to fight for another opportunity
No stopping Kildare flanker as he seeks to show new coach what he's capable of
With flanker Jake Heenan departing at the end of the season, it provides Jarrad Butler, Naulia Dawai and James Connolly the opportunity to stake their claim for a regular spot on the openside of the Connacht back-row.
But after this season is over Connolly has a summer rehab ahead of him, and he hopes to recover from surgery in time to hit the ground running for pre-season.
Connolly damaged his right ankle early on in Connacht's Challenge Cup victory over Worcester Warriors at the Sportsground on October 21.
It was a massive setback for the 24-year-old from Naas, who was making his 25th appearance for the province having made his debut in 2014-'15.
He hasn't got a consistent run in the team since he played away to Bayonne in Europe, on December 13, 2014. And rupturing two ligaments in his ankle was a desperate blow.
"I had the decision to make whether I should go for an operation to get it sorted or to rehab it for a few weeks and strap it up and play," says Connolly.
"I have made the decision that I am going to strap it up and play for the rest of the season, and then get an operation and fix it because it's a bit unstable."
And with injury a reality of the game, Connolly is just delighted to be back in the frame for game-time.
The former Newbridge College student has had to dig deep in recent weeks but working alongside the Connacht strength and conditioning and medical staff, he is more confident on his ankle now.
"I have worked hard over the last three or four weeks rehabbing it and putting emphasis into getting it better and into tip-top shape," says Connolly.
"I will have to strap it heavily when I play next. But from the rehab I'm doing and running sessions with Johnny O'Connor it feels really good so my confidence is growing day by day. It should be grand.
"It's great working with Johnny. He is a former player and knows how it works. He works all of us really hard but he is not cruel or anything. We get the work done and he is great craic to hang around with during the day. We all have a great relationship with them."
Connolly is determined to make strides under the new regime at the Sportsground, and he is thrilled to be working with Kieran Keane, and the rest of the altered backroom team in Connacht this season.
"Last year we played a 2-4-2 shape so the back-rows were out wide a lot, we probably wouldn't be able to get into the game as much as what we are playing now," says Connolly.
Licence "We are playing a 1-3-3-1 now, so it gives the likes of back-rows the licence to go more in-field and carry with the ball, get more into the games and get more involvements, rather than waiting on the wings for the ball.
"It just means the back-row is in the game more. As a positional area we are always focusing on our positional skills and we try and keep on top of them during the week.
"There are four sevens with Jarrad, Jake, Naulia and me. And we would be doing our individual skills and helping each other to get better."
But despite working closely with the fellow opensides in the squad, Connolly knows that he needs to outperform them on a consistent basis to land the No 7 jersey.
It's an ongoing struggle but one a professional rugby player thrives upon, and even though Heenan goes at the end of 2017-'18, Connolly isn't getting carried away with any thoughts of a regular first-team spot.
"All I can control is the here and the now. I was lucky to get a start against Worcester but got injured in the first two minutes of that game," adds Connolly.
"That's part and parcel of the game and the job we are in. All I can focus on is the here and now and how I can get better from day to day.
"Hopefully I can get better over the next few weeks and show what I have got. I just want to get better day by day, I'm not looking too far into the future."
Connolly is studying a strength and conditioning degree at Setanta College at the moment, and although it's tough to manage rugby and education, he is putting his best foot forward on and off the field.
"Setanta College are good, they are very understanding. They help you in different areas whenever you need it. It does get tough to balance the two. But hopefully I keep chipping away at it and I will end up with a degree in a year or two," says Connolly.
"It's 18 modules altogether. Each module is three months long. I am about halfway through. I have another two years about and I can't wait to get that done and dusted."
Formerly of Corinthians, Connolly has had to switch to a Division 1 club, and Naas was the perfect fit for him.
Johne Murphy's side are mid-table in Division 1B of the Ulster Bank League, and Connolly has enjoyed the possibility to travel home to Naas whenever possible.
But Connacht are his main aim for now, and although he loves playing for his home club, it's all about the province and increasing his caps tally there.
"I signed with Naas, and Johne Murphy, Fionn Carr, Dominic Robertson-McCoy are all there," says Connolly.
"The goal is to play as much senior rugby as possible but if I have to play club rugby it's great to be able to go home and see family then."
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