FORMER Ireland international Bernard Jackman believes Connacht have a vital role to play in the future of Irish rugby.
Jackman spent five seasons across two spells with Connacht before moving to Leinster and winning the first of his nine international caps.
"Connacht is vital. If you go down to three provinces and you have foreign players in each province, the Irish team is going to be picking from nothing really. You need Connacht," said the hooker, who is now head coach of AIL outfit Clontarf, at the launch of Betpack's new club poker championship.
"Sean Cronin and John Muldoon have got capped. Fionn Carr and Ian Keatley are putting their hands up every week and tight-head Jamie Hagan is going well. Hagan might not have got game time anywhere else, certainly he wouldn't have got the opportunity to get a season last year and that has given him the confidence to dominate this year.
"He was in Leinster and he was way behind. You could say he could have stayed in Leinster and played in 'A' games but would that have got him to where he is now?"
After reaching the semi-final last season, Connacht return to Challenge Cup action on Saturday with a trip to Italian minnows I Cavalieri Estra on the back of encouraging Magners League form. Jackman believes Connacht are heading in the right direction under new coach Eric Elwood.
"He stepped into a difficult situation being only able to give one-year contracts but he persuaded almost everyone to stay which was no mean feat.
"He sold himself and that's not easy because Connacht isn't the most glamorous place to come to. It shows you the leadership and the vision he has for it."