Máire Treasa Ní Dhubhghaill: How Connacht's brand of Moneyball is paying off handsomely

Maire Treasa Ni Dhubhghaill discusses the province's excellent recruitment methods ahead of Pro 12 semi-final

Matt Healy, Bundee Aki, Niyi Adeolokun

Connacht's Matt Healy, Bundee Aki and Niyi Adeolokun celebrate ©INPHO/James Crombie

It's about getting things down to one number. Using the stats the way we read them, we'll find value in players that no one else can see. People are overlooked for a variety of biased reasons and perceived flaws. Age, appearance, personality…I believe that there is a championship team of twenty-five people that we can afford, because everyone else in baseball undervalues them. (Peter Brand: Moneyball)

A lot of comparisons can be drawn between Billy Beane’s reinvention of the Oakland A’s and Connacht’s clever recruitment over the past number of years. The outsmarting of bigger and richer clubs has brought about a dream season for the Westerners and leaves them in the enviable position of a home play-off this Saturday, albeit against the Champions and in-form team Glasgow.

In a time where it is nigh on impossible to compete with Anglo-French domination in Europe, an innovative approach is needed. IRFU Chief Executive Philip Browne spoke of such difficulties recently: "We have to be a bit more clever about what we do, that’s where David Nucifora and the player pathway and the development of our own indigenous players is absolutely essential."

Money and power are reigning supreme and attempting to go toe-to-toe with the cheque book is a futile battle, but thinking outside the box, as Connacht have demonstrated, holds value.

The last three or four years have seen Connacht look towards the club league to pick out players that have been discarded, or in some cases completely overlooked, by their academies. Matt Healy, Craig Ronaldson, Peter Robb and Niyi Adeolokun were all competing in the Leinster club scene until Nigel Carolan, Connacht’s academy coach, saw their potential and nailed down their move to Connacht. A scout was tasked with the role of specifically looking at club matches and it is possible that these players, who are now household names, could have slipped under the rugby radar while plying their trade in the declining club game were it not for Carolan and Lam’s vision.

Pat Lam - INPHO

Such foresight of drafting in players of this calibre has proven to be brilliant. When speaking to Éamonn Molloy, Connacht’s Coach Development manager, he highlighted its importance, saying, "Finding a player who is yet to achieve their potential is invaluable, as a player who has achieved their potential comes at a price."

Pat Lam’s philosophy has meant that Connacht players are part of the community. They are passionate about who they represent and what they want to achieve, so when it comes to recruiting players, not only do they look at what they can afford, but they have to ensure that the character is the right fit. Clever scouting has proven its weight in gold.

James Connolly, who played Senior Cup for Newbridge College and Australian-born Cork man Rory Parata, who represented Munster at U18 level, both impressed the Connacht coaches at an open U19 trial session. Once again, the province were ahead of the curve with their thinking and were the first to invite players to make their case with such a session. Éamonn Molloy cited Nigel Carolan as the instigator: "At the time it was unheard of to go in pursuit of players that hadn’t made the cut at that level for their provinces, as it was seen as an opportunity to represent your province. This trial was the first time U19 squads moved from being a representative of the province to an elite path team."

Internationals Kieran Marmion and Finlay Bealham are two players to come through the Exiles system, perhaps aspiring to mirror the success of famous Exiles and British & Irish Lions Simon Easterby and Rob Henderson. There is no denying that their marquee players, newly crowned Pro12 player of the year, Bundee Aki and the outgoing Aly Muldowny have played integral roles in Connacht’s success. These shrewd signings coupled with the development of their homegrown players in the Academy, has resulted in the competitive tight-knit unit that has impressed us all season long.

Finlay Bealham - INPHO

Connacht’s recruitment doesn’t always turn out as they envisage and Mils Muliaina is an example of a signing that didn’t live up to his credentials, but their willingness to go in search of that diamond in the rough has brought about a change in perception. Having the confidence to back the “outside chance” has proven lucrative and now players are choosing Connacht over the other provinces - Leinster’s Cian Kelleher being the latest talent who will add strength to Pat Lam’s side next season.

I referred to the importance of Connacht’s 'Grassroots to Greenshirts' philosophy in a previous article and at the launch of their “Vision and Strategy” plan for 2016-2020 on Wednesday, CEO Willie Ruane once again emphasised the strength of their homegrown players. Squad depth is imperative to success and developing young indigenous players like Tiernan O’Halloran and Eoghan Mc Keon insures that quality players can come through the ranks, excel in the green shirt and slot in seamlessly to the solid team set-up that Connacht have fostered.

The majority of the Connacht players that will take to the field on Saturday will have had to work to get to that point. Being rejected, discarded or overlooked gives them an edge. The chip on their shoulder drives them on and their inspirational leader John Muldoon is a prime example of that. Pat Lam’s proud men will channel the emotion of built-up years of frustration into their game, as they go where no Connacht team has gone before. Billy Beane’s Oakland A’s fell at the final hurdle, but breaking records has become a habit for Connacht now and who would bet against them?