Soldiers of Connacht's rearguard in losing battle
No more than a month back Connacht backs coach Billy Millard had a glimpse of the future.
“I haven’t said it on record since I’ve been here but the key is recruitment,” said the Australian. “If they (Connacht) want to improve they have to get better players in. End of.”
A few weeks later lock Mike McCarthy’s move north to Leinster was confirmed. Connacht’s blighted history in that regard would have told them not to be surprised with yet another departure but the reaction was splenetic, chief executive Tom Sears angrily coughing out the true feelings of the province.
“Joe (Schmidt, Leinster coach) is perfectly entitled to his views and we wouldn’t expect him to say anything else,” observed Sears on Schmidt’s claims that Leinster had played by the rules.
“It is interesting to note that he sees these actions as good for Irish Rugby. We would take a very different view, that the constant targeting of our senior players, if allowed to continue, will have a detrimental effect on the IRFU’s desire to see four strong provinces.”
No sooner was their vaunted backs coach straight talking about attracting players to strengthen Connacht than Sears was voicing his profound hurt. It wasn’t so much the irony of the talk of building then quickly losing an international player, more the province’s helplessness in being able to stop the asset-stripping process. Sears was like the flapping hen as the fox comes in, a lot of distracting noise and commotion but not enough to prevent a successful raid on the coop.
Almost immediately Connacht announced their prized fullback, 19-year-old Rob Henshaw, had signed up for another two years in the face of, as Sears expressed it, “strong overtures from other provinces while he has been a member or our Academy.”
The purported sniffing of Henshaw would have expedited a contract upgrade. But the reality is Connacht are sitting on a weight of natural resources in backs and half backs, most of whom have come through Mike Ruddock in the Ireland underage set-up before being further moulded by the former Australian 7s coach Millard.
Talented young players
Eric Elwood can choose from a number of talented young players: fullbacks Henshaw and Shane Layden; centres Dave McSharry and Eoin Griffin; wings Conor Finn and Tiernan O’Halloran; scrumhalf Kieran Marmion; and outhalf Jack Carty. They all see themselves as playing for Ireland. Some will, some won’t.
In their first Heineken Cup match in October against Zebre, Connacht started with a pair of 21-year-old centres, McSharry and Griffin and 19-year-old winger O’Halloran. Henshaw was at fullback and Marmion was the scrumhalf.
Today against Munster, Athlone-born Henshaw is fullback, Dublin-born McSharry inside centre, and Marmion, who was spotted and groomed at Cardiff University through the Welsh connections of Ireland Under 20 coach Ruddock, is the scrumhalf, with the Barna-born former Ireland Under 20 Griffin on the bench.
In the same fixture two years ago, Ian Keatley, Fionn Carr and Seán Cronin were in the side that lost 12-16. With McCarthy’s name about to be chiselled into the departed column, that’s four top players in two years, an attrition rate that would rock any of the other three provinces.
Ruddock has no sway in what the provinces do with their players or where they play and, in fact, his young national side has suffered when the clubs have refused to make players available to him. But he is familiar with many of the names, like in Ulster where Paddy Jackson and Iain Henderson have already broken through into Declan Kidney’s thinking, but also in Connacht.
“We try to remind all the players on the Under 20s that they are our future, they are the next generation of international players and that they have to be mindful of that,” says Ruddock.
“Okay, just a few have come through now but over the course of four or five years hopefully a lot of them can go on. Obviously guys like Tiernan O’Halloran and the other Connacht guys are very talented rugby players. Kieran Marmion was playing in Cardiff University when we first saw him. He’s a very talented player with an excellent rugby brain.
Good breeding ground
“You really are looking at a number who are going to go on to feature at senior provincial level and possibly international level,” says Ruddock. “Over the last couple of years and more recently you have seen people like Iain Henderson getting on.
“I don’t think people fully realise the standard of those Under 20 World Cup fixtures. From a distance I probably didn’t realise how competitive they were until I took part in it. But I realise that it was a really good breeding ground for young players to come through. They are up against the best, quality players in other countries.”
That could be Connacht’s bigger problem. As the likes if O’Halloran, Marmion and Henshaw get more game time and experience in Connacht, their worth as closer to the finished product increases.
Elwood’s progressive policy has been to bring them on and back their ability. When Henshaw signed up last week, it was the emphasis on youth Elwood has brought to the team he grasped in his breathless praise for the province.
“Nigel (Carolan) has been great to me and Eric has given young players a chance here, so I owe them both a lot,” said Henshaw. “Connacht has progressed so much in recent years and a few years ago it wouldn’t have been possible for me to be playing for my local region.”
Skimming off the cream
As Sears fulminated, the inference was the current IRFU protocols aid and abet the stronger provinces in skimming off the cream of the talent pool.
While it’s all very well to point out the Dublin-born players who are contracted to Connacht, the issue isn’t about numbers but about quality. McCarthy, Cronin, Keatly and Carr have senior or A caps for Ireland.
Connacht’s ability to keep their better players sweet is based on whatever loyalty can be instilled. Elwood epitomises passionate energy. But even his fealty and emotional spend on the Connacht brand can’t compete.
Henshaw will be 21 when his current two-year senior contract expires. It will be interesting to see what move he makes then. Even if the IRFU revise the protocols that have so irked Sears, they have to leave some sort of a mechanism whereby players can move between clubs. There, ambition always wins out.
That won’t be Elwood’s problem, nor indeed one for an Irish coach if the names on Connacht’s short list to replace him are as reported, all overseas candidates. Millard’s name may be one of those on the list. A bump up to head coach there could be a strategically astute move.
In his role with the Australian Sevens national side quality players developed under his eye. In a recent interview he was asked about the highlights of those years when he was head coach.
“Definitely bringing young talent through,” he replied, “guys like James O’Connor, Drew Mitchell, Adam Ashley Cooper, Brock James and many other current Super15 players.”
The only difference there was Millard didn’t have to fight a rearguard action to then hold on to them.