'The fan base here is incredible. It's different to Australia'
Daragh Small hears how Colby Fainga'a has settled in well but is keen to stay in the back-row after emergency stint at scrum-half
When Colm de Buitléar was given scrum-half duties towards the end of Connacht's 22-10 victory over Bordeaux-Begles at the Sportsground on October 13, back-rower Colby Fainga'a breathed a huge sigh of relief.
The unfortunate Conor McKeon had just left the field injured and with no other No 9s available, someone had to fill his place, and the Australian feared the worst. Could it possibly happen again?
Last year Fainga'a was in the wrong place at the wrong time when his former Melbourne Rebels team-mate Mick Snowden went down with a foot injury 26 minutes into a game against Southern Kings at Port Elizabeth.
That day scrum-half Snowden was covering for his captain Nic Stirzaker, who had cried off with an ankle problem on the day before the game.
The touring Rebels only had two scrum-halves in their squad so Fainga'a was penned in to perform some slightly different drills during the captain's run.
"Being a more skilful and mobile player, as I was getting off the bus for the captain's run, the coach pulled me aside and said if anything happens to our half-back here you are going to have to go in. So I had a few reps," says Fainga'a.
And disaster struck halfway through the first half. An eye-opening experience for all involved, while the Rebels came out on the wrong side of 44-3 hammering. "I was panicking a bit. As it happened about 20 or 25 minutes into the first half the starting half-back did his ankle and he was out for the rest of the game," says Fainga'a.
"I stepped straight in. I passed well and stuff but it was all a bit of a shambles that day. There wasn't much direction from me. It definitely won't be going on my highlights. It was one of the toughest days I have had on my lungs in my career.
"What I underestimated was squatting down to pass the ball. You do that enough times and you get sore groins. That was the part that took it out of me, the half squat.
"I have a new-found respect for half-backs after that day."
So you can understand his relief when the An Ghaeltacht man, making his debut for Connacht, took the reins instead against Bordeaux.
Fainga'a is a versatile option but that extends mostly to the back-row where he can play in all of the positions, although openside flanker is his preferred choice.
The 27-year-old comes from a family brimming with rugby talent. They grew up in a small town outside of Canberra called Queanbeyan, and along with his three brothers rugby became first choice.
Vili ended up playing internationally for Tonga before a neck injury cut his career short and he became an aviation firefighter.
Twins Anthony and Saia were both capped for the Wallabies while youngest brother Colby played for Brumbies and Melbourne Rebels before making the move to the northern hemisphere. The Fainga'a brothers attended the famed St Edmund's College and one year below Colby was a certain Finlay Bealham.
"We were the same age and did all of our rugby juniors and played Rugby League together. I have known him for a very long time. I had actually played with a few of the guys that were already here before I came to Connacht," says Fainga'a.
"I played with Dave Horwitz at the start of this year when he was at Melbourne Rebels as well, he signed to come here well before I did. So I knew that he was coming here. I knew Kyle Godwin and played with Jarrad Butler in Australia too."
Connacht head coach Andy Friend is also a Canberra native, and after eight years between Brumbies and Melbourne Rebels, when Fainga'a needed a change another Australian was on hand to set him up.
"Andy was head coach when I signed my first full-time contract at Brumbies. He is very well known on the Sevens circuit, former head coach and being a Canberra person he would be well known back there too.
"And I was just looking to head overseas for a new experience with my wife Loren and two kids, Georgia and Oscar. I just thought while I am still fit to come over here, be able to do a bit of travel, play, experience northern hemisphere rugby a bit.
"I think something fell through here at Connacht and Friendy was aware that I was still looking for a club. He just gave me a call and asked would I be interested. I definitely was."
Connacht were on a low after a couple of years in the doldrums following their brilliant PRO12 success in 2016.
But since Friend, Fainga'a, Godwin and the others have arrived there has been a noticeable buzz in the atmosphere around the Sportsground.
The stadium expansion plans are another major plus going forward but Fainga'a just loves what's already there. He has finally settled and wants to embrace all Connacht Rugby has to offer in the coming years.
"Everyone is settled in, we just got our house three weeks ago. We were staying at the Connacht Hotel before that," he says.
"It is good to get a bit of space with a house, especially with the two kids. We have a bit of a play room for them. Something to keep them occupied.
"Ireland is very different to what I have experienced before in my life. I have really enjoyed the game day part of it, the Connacht Clan and the atmosphere they bring.
"You don't get the biggest crowds but the people are super loyal. They know all of the players. The fan base here is incredible. It's different to Australia because you have more access to players. I have just really enjoyed that too.
"The town of Galway, it's really beautiful around here. Since we have arrived we have had a great time.
"The boys are all really happy with the weather. The first week everyone was taking down about being prepared for terrible weather. But so far it's been good for us."