Champions Cup: Third in pool stages
It was always a tall order expecting Connacht to emulate their incredible exploits of 2015/16 and so it proved.
Pat Lam’s final season in charge saw them finish 29 points below their tally of the previous year as they conceded 25 more tries in the process.
Eighth position was not what the ambitious squad had hoped for – though their average position in the 10 years before their first piece of silverware was ninth – and were narrowly edged out of the knock-out stages of the Champions Cup on points difference by Toulouse.
Despite the eighth-place finish, no team made more offloads or passes as they stuck to their attacking mantra, which new coach Kieran Keane will be hoping to build upon.
This season holds many questions for new management, a changing squad and a club looking to take decisive action on the future of its ground.
After a lifetime of coaching experience in New Zealand, Kieran Keane has been handed the reins for three year after leaving his role as assistant coach with the Chiefs.
As well as a similar role with the Hurricanes and stints with New Zealand Under-16 and Under-17’s, he is most widely lauded for his role as head coach of the Tasman Makos. He led the team to ITM Cup Championship glory and a Premiership final and promoted 15 players to Super Rugby during his time with the province.
The 63-year-old made his name as attack coach for the Chiefs as the New Zealand side scored 76 tries in 17 games during the 2016 Super Rugby campaign.
Keane is expected to implement a ‘play what’s in front of you' mantra, which should excite the Sportsground, though may take time to bed in new ideas with the squad.
Keane said: "I dream about rugby, and I dream about it when I am awake and when I am asleep, and I have that mantle because I'm always trying to think ahead, to innovate. Innovation has always been part of my creed about playing the game, and sometimes when listening to me you can get lost because I’m away with the fairies on it."
Peter Wilkins is the new defence coach, with Jimmy Duffy and Nigel Carolan promoted internally.
Connacht have dipped into the southern hemisphere market to add to their options for the coming season.
Versatile backrower Jarrad Butler arrives from the Brumbies with an impressive CV.
The 25-year-old has 70 Super Rugby appearances to his name, was the Players’ Player of the Year award in 2014 and was capped at Under-20 level by the Brumbies.
Keane has spoken glowingly about the new signing who can play right across the back row.
Out-half Andrew Deegan also arrives from Australia and replaces Marnitz Boshoff and will battle primarily with Jack Carty and Steve Crosbie for the starting number 10 jersey.
English scrum-half James Mitchell arrives in Galway on a two-year deal. The 22-year-old is Irish qualified through his maternal grandmother and made 20 Premiership appearances for Sale since his debut three years ago.
Prop Peter McCabe has turned his loan move from Munster into a permanent deal while former Ulster winger Rory Scholes joins from Edinburgh after a single season in Scotland.
Prop Ronan Loughney ends an 11-year association with Connacht after more than 180 appearances and an Irish debut against the All Blacks in 2012. Danie Poolman, John Cooney, Nepia Fox-Matamua and Marnitz Boshoff – released from his contract a year early after missing a chunk of the season on compassionate leave – are among those leaving the Sportsground.
In: Gavin Thornbury (Wanganui), James Mitchell (Sale Sharks), Peter McCabe (Munster), Jarrad Butler (Brumbies), Andrew Deegan (NSW Waratahs), Rory Scholes (Edinburgh), Cormac Brennan, Conor McKeon, Pat O’Toole (all Academy).
Out: John Cooney (Ulster), Danny Qualter (Nottingham), Lewis Stevenson (Bangor), Josh Rowland (Ireland Sevens), Shane O’Leary (Atlantic Rock), Rory Parata (Harbour RC Dunedin), Marnitz Boshoff (Blue Bulls), Ben Marshall (retired), Rory Moloney, Nepia Fox-Matamua, Ronan Loughney, Danie Poolman, Ivan Soroka (all released).
Connacht are in Conference A for the new-look campaign and begin with the visit of Glasgow Warriors to the Sportsground.
Supporters in Galway will get their first taste of South African opposition the following week in the shape of the Southern Kings.
Inter-provincial derbies with Ulster (away) and Munster (home) will give a strong indication of their credentials for the season, while the run-in to the Six Nations will have a big bearing on their play-off hopes with Ulster and Ospreys visiting the Sportsground, sandwiched by away trips to Leinster and Munster.
In March they will travel to Bloemfontein for an altitude clash with the Cheetahs, while a packed house will be expected for the final regular game of the season, a home tie with Leinster and fans will be hoping that it won’t be their final outing of the inaugural Pro14 campaign.
The presence of Zebre in the pool last year raised expectations of qualification to the knock-out stages for the first time and John Muldoon and his charges travelled to the Stadium Municipal in the final game to take on a Toulouse knowing a victory would secure another piece of history.
The French kingpins, not the force of yesteryear, scored just once after the break, but withstood a spirited fight back to progress on points difference. The Connacht captain rued the missed opportunity afterwards, and it will be at least 12 months before they can rectify that.
For now they must make do with the Challenge Cup, though at least logistically there are no nightmarish journeys to the margins of European rugby.
Top14 sides Brive and Oyonnax should provide stern tests, at home at least, while Donnacha O’Callaghan and Peter Stringer could feature for Premiership side Worcester.
Reasons to be cheerful
Everything from Kieran Keane’s past points to a positive outlook for Connacht this season and following on from a challenging season as champions and the high-profile departure of Pat Lam, the New Zealander has brought renewed optimism to the Sportsground.
The fact that Ultan Dillane and local hero Bundee Aki remain in situ despite speculation at different stages linking them away from the Sportsground, is a great starting point for Keane.
The pair are undoubted leaders, and added to Tiernan O’Halloran’s exposure at Test level (the only Connacht representative on last year’s Pro12 Team of the Season) they possess the individuals to test even the best teams. Matt Healy too will be looking to put last season behind him, just three tries in an injury-hit campaign after making his Ireland bow, and his clinical finishing would be most welcome for the men in green.
The emergence of Caolin Blade too has been a real filip and kept pressure on Kieran Marmion.
The dynamic scrum-half made 24 appearance last season, completing 1014 passes in an impressive first full season at the club, though a hamstring injury means he won’t be appearing until the end of September.
Areas of concern
The crippling injury list last year impacted on results and highlighted that the strength-in-depth is perhaps not as strong as it could be. Thirteen senior players have left the squad for varying reasons, so again, a run of injuries could derail their ambitions of a top-six finish.
Losing to Zebre and shipping 40+ points defeats did little for the confidence last year and arguably pitted in the more difficult Conference, there is little room for error domestically. Free-flowing rugby is what the want undoubtedly want, but an improvement in defensive areas is crucial is Connacht are to move back up the table and go on an extended run in Europe.
View from within the camp
"It’s a real exciting time for Connacht. You saw the success of the Chiefs over the last couple of years in Super Rugby and they have been very impressive.
"Kieran has brought that straight away. When a new coach comes in it brings a new vibe and a good atmosphere.
"Guys are back to square one again fighting for positions. Connacht rugby is in a good place and hopefully Kieran can bring more success."