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Green shoots breaking new ground in West

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Connacht players Adrian Flavin, left, and George Naoupu, celebrate their win over Harlequins which, as well as some fine signings, has given them hope for the future

Connacht players Adrian Flavin, left, and George Naoupu, celebrate their win over Harlequins which, as well as some fine signings, has given them hope for the future

Connacht players Adrian Flavin, left, and George Naoupu, celebrate their win over Harlequins which, as well as some fine signings, has given them hope for the future

ANOTHER busy week in Irish rugby and one which has re-emphasised our provincial pecking order.

Down in Limerick, Munster and Leinster are facing off once again, gearing up for Heineken Cup quarter-finals, renewing an ancient rivalry and providing a stage for summer tour hopefuls.

Up in Belfast, Ulster are bringing back their Ireland contingent as they bid to overcome a rough couple of months after the controversy over their coaching appointment. They muscle up against Aironi ahead of next weekend's European assignment in Thomond Park.

And over in Wales, Connacht take on the Dragons with ... ah, who cares?

Quite a few people, actually, and, even outside the western province's faithful band of supporters, anyone looking for positive developments in the Irish game after gut-punching World Cup and Six Nations campaigns should certainly tune into where Connacht are heading.

Dollops

While there are obvious points of focus elsewhere, this is a good time to assess the standing of Eric Elwood's men as another season peters out and, for once, it does not have to be accompanied by the usual dollops of patronisation and references to Ireland's 'Cinderella province'.

It may have only garnered meagre inches in the print media and fleeting mentions on the airwaves, but Connacht made their third significant signing in Willie Faloon this week and it is not the customary act of tokenism to declare that they have laid a serious foundation for next season.

Few would argue with the assertion that the three key positions on a rugby team are tight-head prop, open-side flanker and out-half and, for the first time in the professional era, Connacht have provided themselves with depth in each area.

There is no issue with overseas 'mercenaries' playing in Ireland if they can make a critical contribution to results while not hindering the progress of indigenous players and Dan Parks looks like fitting the bill in both regards.

Yes, his capture will limit the exposure of Niall O'Connor, but O'Connor is a bit down the pecking order of Irish out-halves and will benefit from watching how Parks controls games and engineers victories.

And Parks knows how to win. Miah Nikora had a decent game at 10 for Connacht against Munster in Galway last weekend, but, with all the possession and territory the home side enjoyed, you felt Parks would have ensured four points rather than yet another moral victory if he had been playing.

Then there is Nathan White at tight-head. The New Zealander is an experienced, flinty operator and another excellent capture. Ronan Loughney has made excellent progress and his game-time will suffer, but not hugely, while he will draw invaluable knowledge from the seasoned Kiwi .

And, finally, there was the confirmation of Faloon's move from Ulster. The Ballinahinch man's career has stalled due to not getting a consistent run in the Ulster back-row and he deserves credit for having the ambition to move to less glamorous surroundings.

Those who have doubts about the Faloon's abilities simply have not seen enough of him and his acquisition to join Jonny O'Connor means Connacht have two quality, specialist Irish-qualified opensides to compensate for Ray Ofisa's departure.

Adding to the growing sense of optimism is the progress off the pitch. Connacht's season tickets went on sale yesterday and, with a host of add-ons and incentives, they represent the best value in the country.

They sold more than 3,000 this season (considerable progress for a team that used to regularly attract crowds of less than a thousand) and are hopeful of hitting the 5,000 mark for 2012/13.

After years of subdued exposure to the elements, Connacht supporters can be guaranteed a good night out in atmospheric surroundings at the Sportsground, with the new signings fuelling the appeal of regular attendance.

This time last year, Connacht were reeling from having the core of their side ripped away as Fionn Carr, Ian Keatley, Sean Cronin and Jamie Hagan were getting ready to leave for the bigger provinces.

Forwards coach Dan McFarland has been with the province since joining as a prop 12 years ago and has no problem admitting that, even with their debut Heineken Cup involvement to look forward to, he was never more pessimistic than at the start of this season.

"Ever since I have been here, I always felt that we were making progress in difficult circumstances," said McFarland. "But the beginning of this season was probably the least optimistic I have felt that we were moving forward on the playing front.

"We lost four first-team players, our fastest winger (Carr), who was one of the top try-scorers in the league, our No 10 (Keatley), who instigated most of those tries, our No 2 (Cronin), one of the fastest hookers or forwards in Europe and our established tight-head (Hagan).

"So, to get these signings is massive. Without Jamie, we have not had a first-choice tight-head so to speak. We've had Rodney (Ah You), who was extremely young and inexperienced and Ronan has stepped up in the last while, which has been great.

"But it will be great to have Nathan's experience. He is 30-odd, we haven't had a prop that age for a while, he has captained his province (Waikato) in New Zealand and he has experienced top-level rugby with Leinster. It means we are well covered next season in a critical position.

"We will also have two out-and-out No 7s, which is terrific," added McFarland. "We were well aware of Willie's abilities; his hard edge and willingness to work and get stuck in is the kind of thing Jonny gives us and we appreciate those qualities.

"And at out-half, in the same way as in American Football you look to your quarter-back to win you matches, in rugby you look to your 10.

"That is not to say Niall and Miah can't win matches, they have both played well, but they are still learning their trade, while Dan Parks has learnt his and we are very much hoping he will give us winning leadership in that position."

Guarded

McFarland is guarded in his optimism for next season, but his enthusiasm for the fresh blood coming in and the progress made with the Sportsground match experience -- "People have a fantastic time and the noise that comes out of the Clan Terrace is uplifting" -- is obvious.

Now he says the task is to see out the campaign in a manner that will provide supporters with valid reasons to purchase those season tickets -- starting with the Dragons at Rodney Parade this evening.

It may be an incidental fixture regarding the Pro12 title, but Connacht still want to lay down a marker for themsleves and their fans.

They may not win tonight (the Dragons have only lost once at home and field three current Grand Slam-winners and one former one in Rob Sidoli), but there is a bigger picture here, one that refers to where Connacht have come from and where they are heading.

You will not hear much about them for the rest of the season, but this was a significant week out west and, after countless false dawns, there are now concrete reasons to believe Connacht can finally emerge from the shadows.

Verdict: Dragons

DRAGONS -- W Harries; T Chavanga, A Tuilagi, A Smith, A Brew; L Robling, W Evans; P Price, S Jones, N Buck; L Charteris (capt), R Sidoli; D Lydiate, J Groves, T Faletau. Reps: S Parry, N Williams, D Way, L Evans, T Brown, J Bedford, A Hughes, S Jones.

CONNACHT -- G Duffy; F Vainikolo, K Tonetti, H Fa'afili, T O'Halloran; M Nikora, F Murphy; B Wilkinson, E Reyneke, R Loughney; M Swift, M McCarthy; M Kearney, R Ofisa, J Muldoon. Reps: A Flavin, F Bealham, R Ah You, E McKeon, E Grace, P O'Donohoe, M Jarvis, D McSharry.

REF -- G Vivarini (Italy).

Irish Independent