It’s not often you see a side overhaul the majority of their coaching ticket in one swoop and the narrative focuses on continuity. Rarer still for such upheaval to lead to positive results in the short term.
Ahead of this season, Connacht introduced a new defence coach in Scott Fardy, new attack coach in Mark Sexton and new lineout and maul guru in John Muldoon. There was change at the top, too, as Pete Wilkins replaced Andy Friend as head coach.
Only with Wilkins already in situ prior to this season, as backrow Paul Boyle explains, he was already in charge of plenty despite Friend’s presence, hence the talk of continuity.
“Friendy was still the head man last year, Pete was incoming and the head man in all bar media duties and picking the team,” explains Boyle, who hopes to make his season debut against Leinster on Saturday night having recovered from a broken wrist.
Connacht’s form has impressed many, with the new coaching ticket earning praise. An expected loss in Pretoria – the Bulls have now beaten 14 northern hemisphere teams in a row at home – and a defeat to a Ben Healy drop-goal in Edinburgh are the lone blemishes this season.
The eye test suggests Connacht’s attack in particular has impressed, with kudos making their way to Sexton, brother of former Ireland captain Johnny. The most important stat – points scored – reads well, Connacht ranking fifth of 16 URC teams for average points per match (25.3).
However, other categories place Connacht in the middle of the pack. They’re eighth for metres made per match (377), 10th for defenders beaten (16.2) and the same rank for tries scored (2.8). Despite the numbers not overwhelmingly backing up the eye test, Connacht does rank top for average carries (132), suggesting a clear, possession-heavy identity is coming through under Sexton.
All said, Boyle is full of praise for the man who cut his coaching cloth with Ireland U20s. “Mark Sexton is one of the best coaches I’ve worked with,” he says. “Just his rugby brain, he’s unbelievable in his technical look in attack.
“It’s also what he’s like as a person. Similar to his brother, he says it how it is. He’s not afraid of any arguments. If he feels strongly about something, he’ll say it. Players respond really well to that.”
Former Leinsterman Fardy, who is in his highest-profile coaching role having started out in Japan and then Australian club rugby, also comes in for praise.
“Defence is a simple enough thing in rugby. It’s putting your body on the line and wanting to play for your coach. That’s what he nails the most,” says Boyle of the Australian.
“When you’re on the field you already have the respect for him and what he’s done, he’s a guy you want to play for.”
If so inclined, you could look at Connacht ranking third in the league for number of tackles per match (143) as an indicator of the high work-ethic Fardy has managed to inspire in his charges.
Then there is Muldoon, the local cult hero as a player who came home after a number of years coaching with Pat Lam in Bristol.
“In my first year in Connacht, he was the captain,” says Boyle. “As a young guy coming in he really looked after me, he taught me the ropes and what I needed to do to get better and get into the team.
“I would consider him a bit of an old-school coach which I respond well to. Rugby is such a combative sport that the old-school mentality still comes through. He’s technically good as well, but I just respond well to a coach that has that combative mentality that he has.
“He knows Connacht in and out, he can tailor his coaching, his chats to us in a Connacht way which is important within a team.”
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