Turning game time in to show time


INTERVIEW - FIONN CARR: Johnny Wattersontalks to the Connacht winger ahead of today's Challenge Cup quarter-final clash against Bourgoin

THERE IS a graveyard at the far side of the stone wall at the back of the Connacht Branch offices at the Sportsground, Galway. In years gone by any drifter west from Leinster might have seen the tombstones and held some wistful thoughts of their careers at the RDS, thoughts of what might have been.

Always on the margins of the other three professional Irish teams, endlessly running to a stand still, Connacht ambitions have never been less than honest and heartfelt. But the reality is the province has rarely threatened to steal thunder from the big two or even a faltering Ulster. And it hasn’t always been their fault.

Lately those players in and around the squad have developed a spring in their step and few careers are floundering. The province, which spiritedly survived an IRFU assassination attempt when Steph Nel was in charge in 2003, has been on a perceptible surge over the last season and particularly over the last month.

Those incremental nudges forward have begun to show on the pitch. A win over Edinburgh last week and a match against Leinster, where a victory would have been justified, combined with a Challenge Cup quarter-final in Galway today is intended to send a message that Connacht aim to be contributors to Irish rugby success and not the runt sibling.

The arrival of Fionn Carr and Ian Keatley from the Leinster camp and hooker Seán Cronin from Munster two seasons ago combined with the hardy annuals of Gavin Duffy, John Muldoon, Michael Swift, Bret Wilkinson and others has seeded the squad with continuity and consistency, ingredients that have in previous years been desperately missing.

Keatley and Carr travelled from Dublin to the west on the same day and in the same car. The two backs now share a house in Oranmore, just outside Galway city, with Cronin, who was Declan Kidney’s reserve hooker for the Six Nations Championship.

“It is quite competitive around the house,” says Carr. “You don’t really want to be too sensitive in this house.”

This is Carr’s second season and, like Keatley and Cronin, he has committed himself to another season. It might not yet be too visible from the outside but from within the Sportsground things are seen to be moving and 2007 Under-20 Grand Slam-winning coach Eric Elwood’s arrival for spring training in place of Michael Bradley next season is another fresh breeze.

“I think Eric is going to bring in some different ideas,” says Carr, the Challenge Cup’s leading try scorer. “He’s brought some good ideas already. He’ll definitely help in all aspects of Connacht rugby and, being from Galway, he’s going to promote Connacht around the province and try to get the numbers out to the games. He’s really innovative with the backs. He’s got some great moves and I think he can bring that in to the whole squad.”

Carr’s move from one Michael (Cheika) to the other did not arrive on a whim. As a fullback, centre and wing, who had played in all of the underage Irish sides, Carr was a quality asset spending too much time waiting for a departure through injury or national call-ups before he caught the attention of Cheika.

A few players of his own generation, Luke Fitzgerald and Rob Kearney, nipped in ahead for positions he would have been sweet on while the older Brian O’Driscoll, Gordon D’Arcy, Shane Horgan and Girvan Dempsey were not for shifting. Connacht offered what Leinster could not – game time.

“I spoke to Cheika. I told him I was going to Connacht and there was really only a couple of words said and that was it,” says Carr. “When I was in Leinster there were only big names and you were trying to break through. The chance to get to Connacht came . . I’m glad I took it. I jumped at it.

“There was game time on the table and that’s what I really needed to improve at that level and to be recognised at that level. The more games I got under my belt, the more experience I got and it would all follow through. I thought I’d be able to improve certain aspects of my game in the Magners League and Europe so definitely I’m happy I committed to Connacht.

“When I was playing in school I was fullback and centre, then with Leinster under Michael I was largely on the wing and a little bit at fullback. But I came down to Connacht and actually started off at fullback and ended up moving to the wing. I don’t mind. Anywhere in the back three.”

The wing is from where Carr has built his growing try stack. With seven so far in the Challenge Cup, he is currently equal top scorer with Wasps’ Tom Varndell and has matched the total of Northampton’s Chris Ashton, who topped the try scoring list in the 2008-09 season.

In the Magners League, Carr’s pace and finishing has been equally destructive to opposing teams. When Connacht met the Dragons in March he scored his 12th try in 16 outings and back at the RDS to face Leinster last month touched down twice. The interprovincial derby was just 83 seconds old when he struck first.

Yet to feature for Ireland at Test level, Carr caught Shaun Berne, Girvan Dempsey and Irish fullback Rob Kearney ill-positioned as he cut in from the left and sprinted clear, reminding all just what they had let go.

“I’ve spoke to Declan Kidney on different aspects of my game,” he says. “What he wants me to improve on and what I think I need to improve on. Different things like positioning, both in defence and attack, game patterns, a couple of aspects there I’m constantly working on to try and bring it up to scratch.

“You saw players like Tommy Bowe in the autumn series very good contesting for high balls. A box kick is put up and he’s putting the other wingers under pressure, that thing as well. Constantly really trying to improve and bring in other aspects that other players don’t have, get in ahead of them.

“There are so many Magners League games and Challenge Cup games, I get my opportunities down here. And I’ve taken them. Once you get a certain amount of games under your belt, you become more and more confident. Players around you become more confident.

“I want to play in every game. That’s the way I am at the moment. You want to prove yourself, keep playing well. The more consistent you are at that level, the more the Irish management will have a look at you.

“Obviously the main goal for all Irish players is to get Irish caps. When I moved to Connacht – don’t get me wrong Leinster are European champions – but really I wanted to get a move on in my career and I wanted to get game time. Going to Connacht gave me so many options.”

Newbridge and Dublin have been his homes in the past. But Galway life right now is just fine. Carr doesn’t claim rugby perfection and has occasionally taken flak for defensive work. But the former Kildare underage footballer and Peamount United striker player is singing in his rugby.

Perhaps the fastest winger in the country, the 24-year-old was one of Ireland’s outstanding performers against England Saxons this season at The Rec in Bath. But, as they say, he’s keeping it real.

“I feel Connacht are going somewhere,” he says. “We’re heading up. If you look at the last number of results we’ve been doing well, picking up points, getting the wins and now a home quarter-final of the Challenge Cup and a couple of points off Ulster. It looks like we are keeping roughly the same squad next season.

“The coaches might bring in players in some positions to strengthen. I think we can only get stronger.”

The graveyard is still there. And wistful thoughts too of Connacht maybe qualifying for their first Heineken Cup.