CONNACHT

If one team could possibly feel hard done by with the format of the United Rugby Championship it's Connacht.

With the new regional pools ensuring at least one Welsh, one South African and one Scottish or Italian side qualify for next season's Heineken Champions Cup, it means there's a smaller margin for error if they want to be in the top tier of European rugby.

On top of that the fixtures list - as ever - protects derby games, and going off recent history it's fair to say the Irish teams have been given a tougher hand if they want to succeed in the URC.

If Leinster, Munster and Ulster had established themselves as the Big Three in recent seasons, Connacht could make a strong claim to being the best of the rest.

Last season followed a well worn path of good and bad in the extreme; famous away wins against Leinster and Munster, coupled with an away defeat to Benetton and a 3/8 home record left us once again unsure whether Connacht are over or underachieving.

Quinn Roux's departure for Toulon has left a big void, but Connacht do have plenty of second rows; Gavin Thornbury and Niall Murray were both excellent last season, Ultan Dillane reliable as ever while Leva Fifita brings in experience.

It's in the coaching staff where there has been a real shake-up.

Peter Wilkins has been promoted from forwards coach to a new role as Senior Coach, while South African Dewald Senekal comes in as forwards coach. Mossy Lawler and Colm Tucker have been brought in to replace the long-serving Jimmy Duffy and Nigel Carolan who have moved on.

As usual, expect an entertaining, positive style of rugby from Andy Friend's side. If they make it to the play-offs, and the Champion Cup qualification that comes with it - you can mark the season down as a success.


Last season: Second place in Conference B of the Pro14 (19 points behind Leinster), and sixth in Pro14 Rainbow Cup.

Total titles: 1

Head coach: Andy Friend (fourth season)

Andy Friend: "We're pretty excited, a lot of hard work's gone into this year - that happens every year - but I've just got a good feeling about this one, there's a bit of an adjustment in how we're going to play."

Key player: If Connacht have excelled in any department over other Irish sides in recent seasons it's their recruitment. Across the last decade, they've time and again identified the unpolished diamonds in Irish rugby, and given them a new lease of life. Alex Wootton (above, right) looked like a new player in his season-long loan from Munster last term, scoring 11 tries in 21 games, and after making his move permanent this summer, there's every chance he can match those numbers if he stays healthy.

One to watch: Playing 10 times in his debut season, versatile forward Cian Prendergast (above) more than held his own and played his part in each of Connacht's two significant wins of the season at the RDS and Thomond Park. Voted Connacht's Academy Player of the Year, he's stepping up to a senior contract for this season and could put a real stamp on Andy Friend's team.


Players In: The previously-mentioned Alex Wootton has made his move from Munster permanent, while Australian Mack Hansen and South African Shayne Bolton are both intriguing additions to the backline. Leva Fifita will add plenty of experience in the second row, and his familiarity with new forwards coach Dewald Senekal could be influential. Front rows Sam Illo and Greg McGrath arrive from Leinster, while Oran McNulty, Dylan Tierney-Martin and Cian Prendergast all step up from the academy.

Players out: The biggest loss for Connacht is that of Ireland international second row Quinn Roux, who moved to Toulon in the off-season. Both Sean O'Briens have also moved on, with the Galway flanker forced to retire following complications with concussion, while the Westmeath centre has moved to Premiership side Exeter. Stephen Fitzgerald, Paddy McAllister and Cillian Gallagher have all retired, while Stephen Kerins, Colm de Buitlear, Conor Dean and Conor Kenny have also moved on.

Champions Cup opponents: Stade Francais, Leicester Tigers