Connacht Rugby is delighted to confirm the contract extensions of five of its current crop of players.

The Academy has produced another group of professional players with the promotion of Darragh Leader, Conor Finn and Finlay Bealham to the senior squad on a one-year deal. In addition, last year’s graduates Dave Heffernan and Danny Qualter have also signed a 12-month extension on their current deal with the senior squad.

The latest deals make it 15 Connacht players who have committed their future to the province in recent months.

Commenting on the Academy graduates, Head Coach Pat Lam said:

“It’s fantastic that we will have these local-born and Irish qualified young men fully integrated into the senior squad next season. Jack Carty was given the promotion earlier in the season and it’s great to be able to bring Finlay, Darragh and Conor on board now.

“I’ve seen first-hand the work ethic and the commitment from these boys who are constantly striving to improve their game and themselves. We know that they are all capable of stepping up to the next level when needed. If they continue to work hard, I have no doubt that they will go from strength to strength in the coming months. 

“Our Academy, under Nigel (Carolan), has proven to be very profitable in identifying and developing young talent for the good of the Connacht and Irish teams and the latest four graduates are testament to that.”

On Heffernan and Qualter, the Head Coach added:

“We have also offered contract extensions to both Dave (Heffernan) and Danny (Qualter) who made the step up from the Academy last year.

“Dave (Heffernan) has really impressed us this year especially with the speedy transition he went through to go from playing in the back row to hooker. He has shown us his commitment and drive to make the shift a success and we have seen his good work on the pitch in recent games.

“As a young lock, Danny (Qualter) possesses immense skill and talent and we believe that, with more time, he has the potential to compete with the experienced players around him.”

Player bios

Dave Heffernan joined the Connacht Academy in 2011 and after two years, progressed to the senior set up. The Ballina native went to school in Blackrock College before playing with Connacht at U19 and U20 level. He then went on to represent Ireland U20s, playing against France in the 2011 U20 RBS 6 Nations.

While the 23-year-old started his rugby career as a back rower, last season he began the conversion to the hooker position, where the coaches felt he showed a lot of potential.

Heffernan, who plays his club rugby with Buccaneers RFC, earned his first senior cap in March 2012 when, at age 21, he was named to start against the Scarlets at blindside flanker. This season at hooker, he has made 10 substitute appearances in the PRO12 and scored his first competitive try against Munster at Thomond Park last Christmas.

22-year-old Danny Qualter spent three years with the Connacht Academy before advancing to a senior contract with the club last year. The Athlone-born lock who plays who plays with club side Buccaneers RFC has represented Ireland at U18, Youth Schools, U19, and played 15 times for the Ireland Under-20s.

Last season, Qualter made his debut for the senior Connacht team coming off the bench against Edinburgh at home in the Sportsground. The performance of the 6ft 5in lock earned him a further two senior appearances in the Heineken Cup games, both home and away, against French side Biarritz.

This season, he was a regular starter with the Connacht Eagles in the B&I Cup and inter-pro competitions.

20-year-old Darragh Leader was recruited to the Academy under Nigel Carolan at the start of the 2012/13 season. That same week in October 2012, the Galway native was selected to line out at fullback in his first competitive game for the province against the then league champions Ospreys.

Playing his club rugby with Galwegians RFC, Leader went on to represent Ireland at U19 and U20 level. Last summer, he was part of the Ireland Under-20 squad that went to the 2013 IRB Junior World Championship in France where he was named at fullback against eventual pool winners New Zealand U20s.

This season, under Head Coach Pat Lam, Leader, who can play fullback, wing or centre, has already earned ten caps in the PRO12 and also got his first taste of European action coming on from the bench against French side Toulouse at the Sportsground and going on to make appearances against Zebre and Heineken Cup semi-finalists Saracens.

The former St. Josephs (the Bish) student has been recognised for his ability to kick long range penalties and playing for the Connacht Eagles in this season’s British & Irish Cup, he was entrusted with a last minute penalty kick from 60 metres out to win the game 27-25 against Rotherham Titans.

Australian-born prop Finlay Bealham, whose grandmother hails from Enniskillen, has also graduated to the senior squad after two years in the Academy.

The IRFU were alerted to the fact that he was Irish qualified and Bealham got a trial with the Ireland U20s before the 2012 Junior World Championship. Keen to stay on in Ireland after that, he was given a trial with the Connacht Academy and impressed Manager Nigel Carolan who said “it was no holds barred but he came through it well. He has a good understanding of the game and how he can affect it.”

Following a number of games for the Connacht Eagles and his AIL club side Corinthians RFC, the 23-year-old loose-head made the step up to the PRO12 last month, earning substitute appearances in the bonus point wins over Zebre and Benetton Treviso and coming on from the bench at Ravenhill last week.

Galway-born centre Conor Finn has seen his hard work rewarded with a one-year senior contract after three years in the Connacht Academy. Hailing from Ballinasloe, the 21-year-old captained Cistercian College, Roscrea to the Senior Cup Final in 2011 where they lost out to Clongowes Wood College. Playing his club rugby with Buccaneers RFC, Finn has also represented Ireland at U19 and U20 level. He was a regular starter with the Connacht Eagles in the B&I Cup and inter-pro competitions this season.

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