There is a sense of a new beginning at Connacht.
Last season was one to forget, the Kieran Keane era was a failure which saw the western province finish second from bottom in Conference A of the Guinness PRO14.
Now, a new head coach is at the helm in the form of former Australia 7s coach, Andy Friend. The province have made a raft of new signings, many of which come with Super Rugby experience, but a more familiar name to some will be that of former Munster and Cardiff Blues back row Robin Copeland.
The Wexford native made the switch from Munster during the summer and he has upped sticks a short distance up the M18 to his new home in Galway.
The 30-year-old made over 60 appearances for the southern province and was there since 2014 but the new surroundings of Galway and the Sportsground seem to suit him down to a tee.
“Loving it,” Copeland said today of his time thus far at Connacht.
“Getting on great with him [Andy Friend], great bunch of lads. It’s just genuinely a really enjoyable place to be every day. I go in, the lads are great, the coaches have smiles first thing in the morning, everyone is happy to see you. It’s refreshing to come in and be yourself and really feel that this is a great place to work. So it’s great, loving it.”
Copeland is clearly enthusiastic when speaking about his new club and how he describes day-to-day life on the College Road as “refreshing” makes you wonder how this contrasts to Munster. Copeland enjoyed his four years with the southern province but he admits that there is severe pressure associated with putting on the red jersey and this was evident when he first arrived from the Cardiff Blues in 2014.
“There is an expectation and a pressure that comes with putting on a Munster jersey that it’s hard to replicate anywhere else and it comes from every single detail, of every corner of the organisation, pushing to max out resources, everything.
“I saw it when I was there. Coming from Cardiff, when we set goals at the start of the year, it was ‘ok let’s finish top-four here, let’s try to get a home semi-final here’ and then when I came to Munster it was like ‘we need to win this, win this’ and I was like ‘lads, come on, you can’t win everything, that’s just selfish, greedy! You can’t do that.’ They were like ‘what do you mean? That’s where we are’ and I said ‘oh, yeah, alright’. That is their mentality from the get-go.”
Copeland continued: “They want to win every single thing that they can and yeah, you can break that down into bit by bit how we want to achieve that, but that ruthlessness and that killer edge is brought into every training session, every walkthrough, every meeting. It’s there and it brings a lot of pressure and there is someone constantly on your back to make sure that stuff is being done the right way.”
Although it sounds like a high-pressure environment, which naturally could take its toll on a player, Copeland does see the benefit of such surroundings and philosophy; he wants to bring that into the Connacht squad as a way of striving for greater things.
“So obviously I learned a lot from that [Munster] and I could see differences in young guys, especially at Connacht, coming in saying ‘ah well, we just weren’t good enough last year or that wasn’t good enough or they’re better than us’ and when I first heard those things it’s not necessarily from players even; fans and some staff, media.
“You are like obviously there won’t be as much pressure this year as there was with you last year and not as much expectation to win and you just have to be ‘hold on a second, that’s absolutely not the case’. I have literally stopped people, ‘don’t ever say that again, because that is not where anyone wants to be or what anyone expects’.”
Even with regards to facilities, Munster’s High-Performance Centre at the University of Limerick is one of the envies of international club rugby, but Copeland doesn’t see much of a difference – everything that is currently in place at Connacht should allow them to be one of the best teams in the league.
“So I think trying to bring that type of thinking with me and try and put it into everything that we are doing at Connacht is definitely something that I have thought about since talking to media and talking to fans, not necessarily before I arrived.
“Even things like, ‘oh the gym must be better in Munster, was it? It must have been unbelievable?’ ‘No, this is better, this gym here is unbelievable. Why would you assume something is better because they finished ahead of us in the league last year, it means nothing. We have the best facilities, we’ve got unbelievable coaches, everything is there for us to be one of the top outfits in the league, there is nothing missing, so don’t doubt that there is.”
Copeland speaks with a strong sense of determination and pride about his new club; he admits that he is looking forward to being one of the more senior members of the squad and that speaking up when it is needed is something he is completely comfortable with.
This may not have been the case to the same extent during his time with Munster when you consider the number of experienced internationals and Lions who are in the squad. Looking back on his time with Munster, Copeland doesn’t hold any regrets – he enjoyed his time playing for “one of the best clubs in the world” and is looking to bring that experience to the western province.
“I’m a positive person and I’m not going to think of all the ‘what ifs’. I had a few injuries and there are some quality players at Munster. There are Lions in my position, there are two Lions in my position. Like how p*ssed off can you be really?
“I was playing with some of the best players in the world. It’s okay to take a step back sometimes. I’m always team first, I’ll do what’s best for the team and there were lots of times in Munster where I was like ‘okay I’m not starting, am I going to be p*ssed off? Okay, I’ll be p*ssed off for a little while but I’m going to go out and I’m going to train and make sure the guy that’s in my position is going to get the best prep possible for the game this weekend’.
Copeland continued: “Did I enjoy my time there? Yes. What’s to feel sorry or unfulfilled about? I played for one of the best clubs in the world for four years.
“I’m happy with that. I had my impacts there, I made a difference there, I feel, so I’m not going to feel sorry about it or think about all the what ifs. I’m in a new place now where I feel like I can make a big difference and I’m going to try and do that.”
Pictured at the eir sport announcement that its first broadcast, Cardiff Blues v Leinster will be made free to air to celebrate the channel becoming the NEW home of rugby in Ireland is Susan Brady, Managing Director of Consumer and Small Business with Ulster Rugby’s Billy Burns, Leinster Rugby’s Jack Conan, Connacht Rugby’s Robin Copeland, and Munster Rugby’s Rory Scannell.