Connacht Rugby are delighted to announce that 21 players have re-signed for the province ahead of the 2021-22 season.

In all 19 players from the existing Professional squad have renewed deals for next season while a further two players, Oran McNulty and Cian Prendergast, have been promoted from the Connacht Academy.

Today’s announcement includes four Irish internationals – Finlay Bealham, Jack Carty, Ultan Dillane and Dave Heffernan – while joint-leading Guinness PRO14 try scorer Alex Wootton has signed on a permanent contract having joined on loan from Munster last summer.

Commenting on today’s announcement, Head Coach Andy Friend says:

“I am delighted to see so many of our current crop of players sign on for another season. This is still a very challenging time for everyone in Irish Rugby so to have them commit to Connacht Rugby again says it all about the belief we have as a group to continue the progress we’re making.

17 of the 21 players were once part of the Connacht Academy, and in that group we have a mix of established Irish internationals, experienced players within the province and plenty of young players still in the early stages of their careers.

I have been very impressed by Cian Prendergast and Oran McNulty, and their first Professional contracts is the culmination of years of work from grassroots level to where they are now. Congratulations not just to them but their parents, coaches and all the other volunteers who helped them along the way.

We are continuing to shape the squad for next season, with further discussions ongoing, and supporters should expect more positive news in the weeks and months ahead.”

Connacht Rugby’s retention and recruitment remains ongoing and further announcements will be made in due course.

CONFIRMED NEW CONTRACTS FOR 2021-22

Finlay BEALHAM
Paul BOYLE
Denis BUCKLEY
Matthew BURKE
Jack CARTY
Shane DELAHUNT
Ultan DILLANE
Jordan DUGGAN
Conor FITZGERALD
Dave HEFFERNAN
Eoghan MASTERSON
Sean MASTERSON
Oran MCNULTY
Niall MURRAY
Conor OLIVER
John PORCH
Cian PRENDERGAST
Colm REILLY
Peter SULLIVAN
Gavin THORNBURY
Alex WOOTTON

Bundee Aki and Conor Oliver have both been named in the starting XV to face Bristol Bears in Sunday’s pre-Christmas Heineken Champions Cup clash at The Sportsground (k/o 5.30pm).
 
Their inclusions are the only changes Andy Friend has made to the team that started in last Sunday’s losing bonus point defeat to Racing 92 in Paris. The squad features the same 23 players from that day, with Tom Daly and Jarrad Butler named among the replacements.
 
That means Paul Boyle again captains the side from the number 8 position, while Sean Masterson completes the back row with Boyle and Oliver. Sean’s brother Eoghan and Ultan Dillane again pair up in the second row, and Denis Buckley, Dave Heffernan and Finlay Bealham complete the pack.
 
Kieran Marmion and Jack Carty continue at scrum-half and out-half respectively, while Aki is partnered by Sammy Arnold at outside-centre. The back three is again made up of Matt Healy, Alex Wootton and John Porch.
 
The Connacht management have kept faith with the same replacements that impressed off the bench in Paris, including the young trio of Jordan Duggan, Jack Aungier and Cian Prendergast in the pack.
 
Commenting on his team selection, Head Coach Andy Friend says:
“While you’re never happy with a defeat, there was a huge amount to like about that performance in France last week. It makes sense for us to stick with those same group of players, so the key thing now is we bring that level of consistency to our game and produce it in week in week out. 14 of this squad of 23 came through the Connacht Academy which says it all about the trust we put in our systems at the club to play back-to-back Champions Cup games of this nature”.
 
Regarding the game itself, Friend added:
“European games under The Sportsground lights are always special occasions so no doubt we’ll miss our supporters again on Sunday. Both ourselves and Bristol know only a win will do if we want to reach the quarter-finals so it should be a great contest and hopefully we’ll come out the right side of the result.”
 
CONNACHT MATCHDAY 23 VS BRISTOL BEARS
Sunday 20th December, The Sportsground, k/o 5.30pm
 
Name/Number/Caps
15. John Porch (25)
14. Alex Wootton (8)
13. Sammy Arnold (8)
12. Bundee Aki (104)
11. Matt Healy (140)
10. Jack Carty (145)
9. Kieran Marmion (171)
1. Denis Buckley (186)
2. Dave Heffernan (133)
3. Finlay Bealham (145)
4. Eoghan Masterson (98)
5. Ultan Dillane (102)
6. Sean Masterson (6)
7. Conor Oliver (8)
8. Paul Boyle (46) (C)
Replacements
16. Shane Delahunt (84)
17. Jordan Duggan (4)
18. Jack Aungier (8)
19. Cian Prendergast (3)
20. Jarrad Butler (63)
21. Caolin Blade (116)
22. Tom Daly (32)
23. Tiernan O’Halloran (185)

 

By John O’Sullivan

 

Racing 92 26-22 Connacht

 

Connacht fell to a narrow four-point defeat to Racing 92 in Paris La Défense Arena in the Heineken Champions Cup.

 

In a brilliant exhibition of attacking Rugby, the visitors scored three tries — from Matt Healy, Alex Wootton and Conor Oliver — and collected a losing bonus point while they threatened to inflict the French team’s first-ever European defeat in their new stadium.

 

Racing, last season’s finalists, scored four tries of their own — from Georges Henri Colombe Kurtley Beale, Donovan Taofifénua, and Dominic Bird — but had to see out a nervous last few minutes to complete the bonus-point win.

 

The Westerners started with authority and made an early impression in attack. Both Dave Heffernan and Ultane Dillane made piercing carries early on, but the defence of the three-time finalists held firm and they repelled Connacht’s advances.

 

Slowly, the Parisians grew into the game and they made it count on the scoreboard when Colombe, the tighthead prop, managed to burst over from close range. Racing’s rolling maul was defended stoutly by the visitors, but — after a few phases of carries from close to the line — the hosts pressure eventually told and they opened the scoring. The difficult conversion from Maxime Machenaud landed and the Top 14 side were 7-0 to the good.

 

Connacht reacted well to the concession of the try and they had their own points soon after. Another barrelling run from Heffernan brought the Westerners into the 22 and Racing were penalised at the breakdown. Jack Carty made no mistake from the kicking tee and the visitors deservedly found themselves on the scoreboard, 7-3.

 

With the PRO14 team’s pack carrying hard and winning territory, the home side weren’t having it all their own way but their defence was firm and they were efficient with all of their attacking opportunities, especially in the transition.

 

A typically classy move from last season’s finalists saw Vakatawa — the France international centre — make a burst and then feed Kurtley Beale, the former Australia full-back, to run in a try which Machenaud slotted to stretch the Parisians lead to 14-3.

 

Another try soon followed when winger Donovan Taofifénua acrobatically flew in for a try in the left-hand corner. The angle was difficult, and the conversion fell wide but the French team lead 19-3.

 

Connacht, though, never lost composure and kept their attacking intensity up. A series of line outs and hard carries — with Dillane especially prominent — brought the visitors close on several occasions and they had a deserved try on the stroke of half time.

 

With an advantage, Carty beautifully executed a cross-field kick that landed flush into the arms of the jumping Healy. The winger caught it perfectly in midair and held his balance to touch down. The conversion was wide, but the visitors went into the break 19-8 down but definitely in the game.

 

Racing started the second half in a strong fashion and had a try ten minutes in when Dominic Bird — the former All Black — was the benefactor of a rolling maul and he touched down at the base. The conversion landed and the hosts found themselves 26-8 to the good.

 

Connacht never relented the pressure and they were game both in defence and attack and they showed this when they turned defence into attack and got themselves back into the game with 20 minutes remaining. Showing a brilliant turn of pace and spatial awareness, Wootton intelligently intercepted a Racing pass in his own 22 and went the length of the pitch to touch down for a try which Carty converted to bring the Westerners to 26-15 and within touching distance of the Top14 men.

 

With the wind in their sails, Connacht — where Paul Boyle and Dillane were both inspired in the ball carrying stakes — kept probing and pushing for a score. With five minutes remaining, they had the score their pressure merited when Oliver powered his way over from close range. The conversion was good from Carty and Andy Friend’s men found themselves only four points behind with as many minutes remaining.

 

The Westerners almost snatched what would have been a famous win when Tiernan O’Halloran kicked through a ball in the dying moments, but the ball beat everyone and went dead. The hosts saw it out and claimed the win.

 

Ultimately, it was a defeat but Connacht can be happy with their losing bonus point and performance in Paris.

 

Connacht team:

15-9
15: John Porch
14: Alex Wootton
13: Sammy Arnold
12: Tom Daly
11: Matt Healy
10: Jack Carty
9: Kieran Marmion

8-1
8: Paul Boyle
7: Jarrad Butler
6: Sean Masterson
5: Ultan Dillane
4: Eoghan Masterson
3: Finlay Bealham
2: Dave Heffernan
1: Denis Buckley

 

Replacements: Jordan Duggan for Buckley, Shane Delahunt for Dave Heffernan, Jack Aungier for Bealham, Cian Prendergast for Sean Masterson, Conor Oliver for Butler, Caolin Blade for Kieran Marmion, Bundee Aki for Arnold, Tiernan O’Halloran for Porch.

By John O’Sullivan

 

Head coach Andy Friend says Connacht will need to improve on their exits and stick more diligently to their game plan in Sunday’s 19:35 Guinness PRO14 kick off away to Edinburgh.

 

In the Westerners last outing, a 29-7 defeat to Cardiff Blues, mistakes in crucial areas of the pitch hampered a good performance and let the Welshmen capitalize and seal the victory.

 

But Friend is confident that his team has learned from the defeat in Wales and is sure they can apply these lessons in what he expects to be a keenly competitive game against the Scots at Murrayfield.

 

“Edinburgh and Cardiff play a very similar style of game,” the Australian said.

 

“We knew what we needed to do, and we did it on the whole. We did it very well. On the four occasions out of 21 that we chose not(stick to the exit plan) to do what we said we were going to do, we leaked 21 points. The evidence is pretty clear for us: stick to the game plan, stick to task and it will work for us.

 

“When we go off script and try to create things, against those sort of teams, who rely on you giving them opportunities by trying to create stuff in the wrong areas of the field. So, we’re going to cop something very similar this weekend and hopefully we’ve learned our lesson from that,” Friend added.

 

With seven Connacht players called into the Irish squad for the resumption of the Six Nations, there will be plenty of squad rotation in upcoming weeks, but Friend believes — despite being without players of the quality of Bundee Aki, Dave Heffernan, Finlay Bealham, Quinn Roux, Ultane Dillane, Kieran Marmion and Jack Carty — that the Western province have the right blend of experience and youth in the squad to win games without their international contingent.

 

“I do, I really do,” the former Australia Sevens coach said when asked whether he thought his squad, short of its Irish capped players, can compete over the course of the upcoming international fixture window.

 

“We’ve copped injuries at the front end of the year, we haven’t had some of our more experienced players available to us. But in time they will come back, the likes of Tiernan O’Halloran, Matt Healy and Paddy McAllister, who we haven’t seen at the front end of the season. They’re three of our more senior players.

 

“In time, they will all come back and they will definitely add some experience and some start’s to the team. But in the meantime, we are going to need the young guys to step up and they know what their role is and i’m sure they’re not going to let us down on Sunday.”

 

Meanwhile, back-row Conor Oliver says that Edinburgh will pose a massive challenge for Connacht but he is eager for the opportunity to right a few wrongs from the Cardiff game in the Scottish capital on Sunday evening.

 

“We will go to Edinburgh with a mindset that we need to get points from this game,” said Oliver, who scored the Westerners solitary try away to Cardiff two weekends ago.

 

“They’re a tough team, they came close against Munster last week. I felt we didn’t exit as well as we wanted to, we had a lot of pressure put onto ourselves from Cardiff. We want to be more efficient when we have the ball and to be able to transfer pressure onto the other team.

 

“We’re an expansive Rugby team, we like to play a nice brand of Rugby. We’ve put a few things in place(plans) that we think will give us the benefit this week, mainly holding onto the ball a bit more and being smarter when we actually want to attack and when we want to put pressure back onto the other team,” the 25-year old said.

 

A recent arrival from Munster, Oliver believes the welcome he received from his team-mates has helped him settle quicker into life with Connacht and in Galway.

 

“Everything was pretty smooth. They were really welcoming(the squad), as usual. I felt it was probably better, the way we kind of started off in smaller groups(due to COVID19 restrictions), that let me know guys on a personal level. I’m getting on with everyone and loving it so far, the experience,” the Dubliner said.

Irish International Bundee Aki will make his 100th appearance for Connacht on Sunday after he was named to start in the Guinness PRO14 clash with Ulster at the Aviva Stadium (k/o 4.30pm).
 
Aki joined Connacht in 2014 and has gone on to play a central role in the province’s fortunes since then. He was named Guinness PRO12 Player of the Season in 2015/16, the same year he helped the team to their first ever title.
 
His form was rewarded with a first call-up to the Ireland squad in the 2017 Autumn Internationals. He has been an ever-present member of the squad since then, making 26 appearances and starting every game in the Grand Slam victory of 2018.
 
Elsewhere at least two players will make their Connacht Rugby debuts on Sunday with Alex Wootton and Academy graduate Peter Sullivan both named on the wings. They form a back three with John Porch who slots in at full-back.
 
Tom Farrell will partner Aki in the centre with Irish international Kieran Marmion and Jack Carty forming a formidable half-back partnership.
 
In the forwards there’s a return to action for prop Finlay Bealham after sustaining a serious injury against Edinburgh in February, and he makes up an experienced front-row with Denis Buckley and hooker Dave Heffernan.
 
Ultan Dillane and Gavin Thornbury have been named in the second row, and the starting XV is completed by flankers Eoghan Masterson and captain Jarrad Butler, with Paul Boyle named at number 8.
 
Three more players could make their Connacht debuts off the bench, with props Jordan Duggan and Jack Aungier, and back row Conor Oliver all included.
 
The remainder of the replacements is made up of Jonny Murphy, Niall Murray, Stephen Kerins, Conor Dean and Tom Daly.
 
Connacht Rugby Head Coach Andy Friend says there’s huge excitement about returning to action:
 
“It has been almost 6 months since our last game and 2 months since we commenced pre-season training, so we are delighted our return has finally arrived. I have been really impressed with how the squad as a group have reacted to the uncertainty of the last few months, and it’s now our opportunity to show that hard work against an opposing team.”
 
Commenting on his team selection, Friend added:
 
“We have selected a squad of 23 that we believe can win this fixture. We have a neat blend of experience & youth, with the potential of five new debutants for Connacht, along with Bundee making his 100th appearance. It’s therefore a special occasion in many ways, and we intend to put out a performance that warrants that.”
 
CONNACHT RUGBY MATCHDAY 23 VS ULSTER RUGBY
16:30, Sunday 23rd August @ Aviva Stadium

15. John Porch
14. Peter Sullivan
13. Tom Farrell
12. Bundee Aki
11. Alex Wootton
10. Jack Carty
9. Kieran Marmion
1. Denis Buckley
2. Dave Heffernan
3. Finlay Bealham
4. Ultan Dillane
5. Gavin Thornbury
6. Eoghan Masterson
7. Jarrad Butler (c)
8. Paul Boyle

16. Jonny Murphy
17. Jordan Duggan
18. Jack Aungier
19. Niall Murray
20. Conor Oliver
21. Stephen Kerins
22. Conor Dean
23. Tom Daly

Every day we’re shining a light on one of our newest arrivals over the summer, and help you get to know each of them before we return to the field later in the month.

Today it’s the turn of another Munster arrival, back rower Conor Oliver.

Welcome Conor how have your first few weeks been as a Connacht Rugby player?

It has been good, a new atmosphere and meeting new faces is always refreshing. Trying to remember the names wasn’t as hard because we started in small groups and I got to know the boys individually which is brilliant coming into a new environment. Usually, when you join a new team you are straight into a big squad and try to remember everyone’s name and it can be awkward when you don’t know someone’s name. I am doing well with names, I haven’t got any wrong so far. The training has been excellent, we have been pretty lucky with the weather which I was told can change very fast in The Sportsground. I am enjoying getting to know all the boys and coming into a new team means I am learning new things and get to challenge myself.

How have you found working with the coaches and S&C teams?

It’s brilliant, I am enjoying working with new coaches and seeing the different personalities and the way they work. I already feel like I can chat with the coaches normally and I am getting on well with them. I was in contact with the S&C team well before we started back, I received programmes from them to prepare me for the way they do things before getting back, this gave me confidence coming into the team as I knew I was doing the same things as the other guys. Nothing was thrown at me, it was more of a gradual step by step introduction and it was the same with coaches from the rugby side of things. As the weeks have gone by I have started to learn the style of rugby Connacht play. The restrictions have probably helped the new players more because it gave us a chance to learn everything step by step.

Was it tough waiting for pre-season to start knowing you’re joining a new club but at the same time going through lock-down and everything?

I didn’t mind it too much, I was laid back when it came to that stuff. I was more excited about it than anything else, I wasn’t nervous. It was more stressful setting my life up again and moving to a new house in a new city. Luckily, Connacht were able to help me find a house. I had been in Munster for so long since my Academy days and have never experienced another club at a professional level. I was excited about getting into the swing of things and seeing what the Connacht set up is like.

There’s a lot of competition for places in your position so I presume you’re all eager to impress ahead of the Interpros?

It’s a healthy competition which you need in any squad, you can’t get complacent. Once complacency sets in performances can start to dip. There is plenty of back rows in the squad and I would welcome any competition, I enjoy it as I am a very competitive person. It makes it even better when you do get selected and you know the hard work you put in at training starts to pay off. There are some excellent back rows and I cannot wait to see what happens during the season and there is no doubt we will be all pushing each other on to become better players

What would like to achieve with Connacht?

I am an extremely ambitious person which is one of the reasons I signed with Connacht, you can see the potential, it’s a young team. Every player wants to lift a trophy at the end of the season, that will always be my ambition when I am playing. I want to work towards that step by step and build nicely into the new season. It is great having these Interpros to gauge where we are at as a team and to see what needs to be fixed. I have a massive ambition to win silverware which is a goal for all players. I want to make an impact and difference in Connacht and bring things that I feel would be valuable to the team. When I play for a team I give it my all and I will give it 100 percent.

Have you experienced much of Connacht and Galway since you got here?

I love Galway, I have always enjoyed coming here on weekend trips. I have always thought it was a great city and the atmosphere around here is amazing. I feel lucky to be able to move here and experience it, especially living out in Barna and having the sea right beside me. I am originally from Skerries in Dublin and grew up beside the sea. That was one thing I missed when I was in Limerick was that connection to the sea. It is brilliant to be able to come back from training and go for a swim in the evening even though it is freezing.

What is an interesting fact about you that the Connacht supporters would not know?

I have a British bulldog, it’s just been me and him the past two years. He is probably one of the things I love the most, he gets fed more than me most of the time. I might try have him as a mascot at one of the Connacht games, but we may struggle to find a jersey that fits him. I am an avid gamer too, when I am not playing rugby I will be glued to my PlayStation.

Connacht Rugby are pleased to confirm the signings of Munster duo Sammy Arnold and Conor Oliver, and Leinster pair Jack Aungier and Oisin Dowling.
 
The quartet will become Connacht Rugby players from July 1st with Arnold, Dowling and Aungier penning two-year deals.
 
Irish international Sammy Arnold has made 44 appearances for Munster since joining the province from Ulster in 2016, scoring 8 tries in the process. The 24-year-old centre has been named both Ulster Academy Player of the Year and Munster Young Player of the Year, and made his International debut against USA in the 2018 Autumn Internationals.
 
Back row Conor Oliver has featured 28 times for Munster since making his debut in February 2016 and was named Munster Academy Player of the Year the following season. The 24-year-old can play on either flanks or as a number 8, expanding the coaching team’s options heading into the new season.
 
Oliver and Arnold both featured for Ireland in the 2015 World Rugby U20 Championship, who were then coached by current Connacht Attack Coach Nigel Carolan.
 
Jack Aungier made his Leinster senior debut last November and has gone on to make 5 appearances for the side in the current Guinness PRO14 season. The prop has also impressed at underage level, featuring for the Ireland U20s and U18 Clubs squad.
 
Oisin Dowling arrives from the Leinster Rugby Academy having played 6 times for the senior squad in the past two seasons. The 6’5’’ lock has also been capped at Irish U20 level.
 
Commenting on today’s announcement, Head Coach Andy Friend says all four players can make significant contributions to the squad ahead of the new season.
 
‘“In Sammy, Conor, Oisin and Jack we have secured the signings of four very talented and promising young Irish rugby players. They each have unique skillsets which will enhance our squad for next season and beyond, and will allow us to continue to grow as a program. We’re all looking forward to welcoming them to The Sportsground and integrating them into our playing squad.”

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