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LionsWatch Club Profile: Connacht

If 2016 was the year of the underdog, then Connacht were one of the most heartwarming tales as they claimed their first-ever Guinness PRO12 title.

“Dillane is one of those guys who seems to be able to make the transition from one level to the next seamlessly"

If 2016 was the year of the underdog, then Connacht were one of the most heartwarming tales as they claimed their first-ever Guinness PRO12 title.

The province based in Galway have seen Ulster, Munster and then Leinster enjoy European glory and domestic dominance while they also have to cope with much smaller playing numbers than their rivals.

But last season all that was forgotten as they completed the most unlikely of title runs with victory over Leinster in a memorable final in Edinburgh.

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Following that up this season was always going to be a challenge and while they have struggled domestically, they came within two points of reaching a first-ever European Champions Cup quarter-final – losing their final pool game to French giants Toulouse 19-10 when a seven-point loss would have got them through.

That would have been another landmark moment, but with director of rugby Pat Lam off at the end of the season it’s no surprise that this has been a year of transition.

John Fallon, who runs Media West Ireland and is based in Galway, knows the team as well as anyone, and admits it’s been difficult to live up to last year’s magic.

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“Last year was surreal, they just got on a roll and didn’t take their foot off the gas,” he said.

“When you look at the teams that started the final in Edinburgh, they had no right to win so it was incredible for them to do it.
 

Connacht players @Tiernanoh11 @kieranmarmion @Ultan_Dillane and @FinlayBealham all named in 40-man @IrishRugby #6Nations Squad. pic.twitter.com/h7JVq2qtUH

— Connacht Rugby (@connachtrugby) January 23, 2017

“This year there have been fluctuations but they had a harder time in pre-season, which was always a strength of theirs, and they’ve also been hit by injuries.

“Their European campaign was very good though and they came desperately close to getting out of a group with Toulouse and Wasps.

“Pat Lam said reaching the quarter-finals would have topped winning the league. I’m not sure if Connacht fans would agree with that but it was still an incredible effort.

“They have a battle on their hands to make next year’s Champions Cup, but they went on a good run around this time of year last season so they will hope to do the same again this year to give themselves a chance.”
 
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Connacht have enjoyed increased representation on the international stage as they have featured more regularly alongside Europe’s elite, and even managed five players in the Ireland team that defeated Canada in November.

Two of those stand out for Fallon as worthy of consideration for Warren Gatland, second row Ultan Dillane and versatile prop Finlay Bealham.

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Dillane’s rise has been a rapid one, from playing All-Ireland League to a Test debut in less than a year, while Bealham has had an intriguing route to the Test stage of his own.

Fallon explains: “Dillane is one of those guys who seems to be able to make the transition from one level to the next seamlessly.

“Last year he went from AIL to the RBS 6 Nations in six months and he coped with it.

“As a lock he’s incredibly athletic, has great hands and is very good option in the lineout. From a Lions perspective he’s injured at the moment so he probably needs to get fit in time to feature in the RBS 6 Nations to be in with a shot.

“This year he’s probably suffered from losing the experience of Aly Muldowney alongside him at Connacht, but when he’s fit he’s an excellent player.

“Bealham might actually have more chance of going thanks to his ability to play both sides of the scrum. With a limited number of spots in the touring squad, he’s like a two-in-one option at prop.

“He’s done very well when he’s been given a chance by Joe Schmidt and he has the advantage of experience in the Southern Hemisphere as he grew up in Australia.”
 
BOLTER POTENTIAL
 
Joining Dillane and Bealham in Ireland’s RBS 6 Nations squad are a pair of backs in full-back Tiernan O’Halloran and scrum-half Kieran Marmion.

According to Fallon the former has the potential to turn some heads if he gets the opportunity during the RBS 6 Nations.

He said: “Tiernan O’Halloran is a very long shot but he’s been good when he’s got the chance for Ireland.

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“He’s very good under the high ball where he’s very comfortable because of his Gaelic football background.

“As a result he loves to come forward, attack the ball and he’s also great coming into the line.

“He got his chance very young at Connacht, perhaps a little too early, but he’s really come into his own and established himself as a leader in the last couple of years.

“The tricky thing is the competition at full-back for Ireland, with Rob Kearney and Simon Zebo, so it really depends on whether he gets a chance.”
 
LIONS IN HISTORY
 
Connacht have produced three Lions over the years but their ties to the side run deep.
Hooker Ciaran Fitzgerald captained the team on the 1983 Tour to New Zealand, and followed in the footsteps of Ray McLoughlin and John O’Driscoll in being selected for the team.

McLoughlin was a prop who toured Australia and New Zealand in 1966, returning to the countries five years later as part of the Lions side that beat the All Blacks.

O’Driscoll, uncle of the legendary Brian, was a flanker who toured in 1980 to South Africa and then under Fitzgerald in New Zealand.

And more recently current Lions Head Coach Warren Gatland cut his coaching teeth in the area, firstly with Galwegians and then with Connacht from 1996.

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Fallon remembers: “Even back in those days at Galwegians Gatland always enjoyed springing a surprise.

“He’s not changed in that regard and he was always someone who stuck to his convictions. He wasn’t afraid to take a long shot.”
 
Connacht
Captain: John Muldoon
Director of Rugby: Pat Lam
Website: http://www.connachtrugby.ie/ 
Twitter: @connachtrugby
Home Ground: The Sportsground
 
John Fallon runs Media West Ireland based in Galway
 
 

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