Can Connacht contingent lead Ireland in Canadian conquest?

Rob Murphy on how Connacht's charges can impress Joe Schmidt

Joe Schmidt, Ireland, training,

Image: ©INPHO/Billy Stickland

The records keep tumbling when it comes to Connacht players involved with the Ireland squads.

Four starters this Saturday marks a new milestone - and five players on the panel - matches what we saw in the spring when Ireland played Italy at the Aviva Stadium in the Six Nations.

All five of the Connacht men that will play for Ireland tomorrow have long-term contracts with the province. They are all 26 or younger, and they are all products of an academy system that has turned the region into the most productive in the land, if you measure solely on professional players developed per number of players playing in the region.

Against Italy back in March, Nathan White and Robbie Henshaw were among the five, White has since being forced into retirement while Henshaw...well, you know the story there. However, Ultan Dillane, Finlay Bealham and Kieran Marmion remain mainstays of the Irish setup, having broken through in the last 12 months.

The new additions for Saturday are Clifden native Tiernan O’Halloran, who made his debut in South Africa with a brief appearance late in the second test, and a storming start in the third test before a reckless hit while he was in the air took him out of that game with an injury. The 25-year-old Connemara native is signed up with Connacht until 2018, and in the form of his life.

Image: ©INPHO/Dan Sheridan

His return from injury this season came just in time for the key four-game win streak, where he played a starring role in the wins at home to Ulster and Toulouse that have helped keep Connacht’s season on track after a shaky start.

His lines of running from fullback are a joy to behold, and his tries against Leinster in the PRO12 final and Toulouse in October highlight as much.

O’Halloran was first on the scene scoring tries in the Stoop against Harlequins in the Heineken Cup in 2012, but his form dipped as injuries mounted. Just 24 months ago, he was in a very uncertain place with career. That’s all like a distant memory now, as he has assumed his place as one of Pat Lam’s trusted lieutenants in the backline now, a firm believer in the processes that have being put in place by the New Zealander to make Connacht a force.

Then there is the potential debutant, Niyi Adeolokun, who truly has a fascinating story to tell. He’s in an Irish match day squad for the first time this weekend, and that’s based on his form throughout the year of 2016. His try in the PRO12 final was one of the scores of the season, and he has carried that on this season with three key tries for his province.

The 26-year-old was born in Ibadan, Nigeria and came to Ireland in 2001 with his family. He attended De La Salle College and played plenty of different sports from the very start, including a number of years playing Gaelic football with Templeogue Synge Street.

Rugby became his passion though, and while a professional contract seemed a step too far, he worked his way up to AIL rugby starring with Trinity College.

His speed was the key attraction for club coaches. The All Ireland club sevens helped him showcase his raw talent, and in the spring of 2014, Connacht came looking for him. He made his debut in September of that year. Very few players get their first pro contract at that stage, and Adeolokun had plenty of ground to make up. A wonderful try against La Rochelle away from home in January of that season showcased his potential, and there were plenty of other signs too.

While raw speed and his evasive lines are his main attribute, Adeolokun’s defence is an underrated element of his game. His technique in the tackle is text book, low at the ankles and deliberate. He will relish a chance to shine against the Canadians, and with a Connacht contract secured until 2019, he has plenty of time to continue his development.

Image: ©INPHO/Billy Stickland

The key element of all the success Connacht are having in bringing through their academy graduates is the long-term contracts they have managed to secure them. The five you’ll see on Saturday have all firmly committed to the province where they got their start in professional rugby.

Ultan Dillane was the most high profile of them; he had been linked with a move to Munster, but put pen to paper on a deal taking him to 2019 instead.

That announcement, along with the re-signing of Bundee Aki, was a huge moment in the evolution of professional rugby in the province. The Tralee native came to Connacht as a youth player when they offered him the full academy contract that Munster had failed to, and he hasn’t looked back.

For Finlay Bealham and Kieran Marmion the stories are a little different, but ultimately it ends up coming back to the fact that they took a punt on making their way through the Connacht academy, and it paid off.

Bealham was born in Canberra but came to Ireland to try and play rugby, starting at club level in the province of his grandmother from Enniskillen before heading west, linking up with Corinthians and building from that.

Barking born Marmion had relations in Loughrea, County Galway and spent summers in the west, so it was an easy choice for him to try his hand in this part of Ireland. He was also given more game time than he could have had in any other professional environment from an early age. Six caps later, it is paying off. The 24-year-old is signed up until 2018, and a key part of Lam’s vision.

 

Image: Ireland's Ultan Dillane celebrates victory over the All Blacks. Ireland's ©INPHO/Billy Stickland

The final part of the jigsaw is the club game; all of the players mentioned above had some key periods involved with their clubs. Dillane and Bealham were regulars for Corinthians under Phil Pretorius four seasons ago, and had some tremendous success on their way to promotion to the second tier. They cut their teeth there, as did Adeolokun with Trinity College. That experience and grit has served them well.

In their 2020 vision entitled 'Grassroots to Green Shirts', Connacht explicitly state that one of their three main goals is bringing players through to represent Ireland. As a key part of their mission statement, it sits right alongside targeting Champions Cup quarter-final qualification at least once every four years, and a regular slot in the top six of the PRO12.

Province CEO Willie Ruane, Domestic Game manager Eric Elwood, Academy Manager Nigel Carolan, and Pat Lam all passionately believe that days like Saturday are the result of a joined-up thought process that will not only lead to players pulling on the Irish jersey, but will also ensure great days and tangible success can be brought to the Sportsground on a regular basis. As Lam himself might say, it’s all part of the process.