by Brendan Cole
Apologies for starting with a quick look back, but this season will tell a lot about Michael Bradley. In the opinion of many people, Connacht have beaten the odds over a long period and if they suddenly dip under new coach Eric Elwood, Bradley’s star will rise even further.
Matching the achievements under Bradley in the Challenge Cup last year will certainly prove difficult. Connacht were within touching distance of a spot in the final year and gave a star studded Toulon a rattle at The Sportsground in the semi before losing 19-12.
Bringing a new level of consistency to Connacht’s play is the challenge for Elwood and with largely the same personnel as last year available, it is a huge task. The hope is that a change of voice and a beefed up coaching setup will produce a performance uplift.
The positive is that in some positions, the frontliners are close or even ahead of some counterparts in other provinces. Sean Cronin, John Muldoon, Ian Keatley and Fionn Carr have been excellent while Gavin Duffy never looks out of place even against the best opposition. Johnny O’Connor often looks as good as during his Wasps heyday and Frank Murphy has looked as good as – and arguably a bit smarter than - any scrum-half in Ireland.
Miah Nikora, Troy Nathan and the other Southern Hemisphere recruits add a hard edge and a professional sensibility to the back play.
But getting every one of their frontliners on the field is a extremely difficultly. And for that reason, lthough they can put together the guts of an excellent starting XV, Connacht are still eight or nine players short of being really competitive in the Magners League.
Given that they are completely safe from relegation in the Magners League and have a reasonably Challenge Cup group (Harlequins, Cavailieri Prato and Bayonne) a well planned tilt at European glory could be the best bet.
On the other hand, the addition of the Italian teams has changed the Magners League equation - albeit probably to Connacht's detriment. But if Heineken Cup qualification becomes even a remote possibility, the Westerners may opt to focus their resources in that direction in a bid to get past any of the other Irish provinces, though Ulster's South African recruits will make that a trickier proposition than it used to be.
MAGNERS LEAGUE PREDICTION 9th