For the past couple of years Connacht have spent their seasons with many highs, but considerably more lows. However, the tide at the Sportsgrounds may be about to turn.
Connacht announced the signing of New Zealander Mils Muliaina during the week, in what is a true marquee signing for the Western club. The Westerners have shown tremendous spirit in seasons gone by but they always seemed to lack the skill and depth to make a significant step up in the standings of the Irish provinces.
With Leinster, Munster and Ulster all lying in the top four of the Rabo Direct Pro 12 and Connacht languishing in ninth, the signing of a true superstar like Muliaina could very well give the Westerners a real chance of competing next season and challenging for a European spot.
While the chances of competing in the new European Rugby Champions Cup are slim, it should be something the club aim for next season. With a centurion All Black in Muliaina in their ranks, Connacht rugby can progress and implement the sort of ambition and more importantly, the sort of quality needed to become a more competitive force. It has an air of familiarity with the legendary story in Thomond Park when Keith Wood went to Munster and demanded the club set their goal to winning the Heineken Cup.
Not only will the signing of Muliaina add needed quality to the Connacht back line, but it will also add experience. With young Robbie Henshaw, anointed by Brian O’ Driscoll as the man to slip into the Irish 13 jersey, still developing his skillset having Muliaina in the squad will be vital. The opportunity for Henshaw to learn from a player of the former All Black’s calibre, it will no doubt improve the young centre’s abilities.
Along with Muliaina, the signing of Bundee Aki is exciting for Pat Lam’s side. At 24, the centre has his best years as a rugby player ahead of him, and if he can click with Henshaw in the middle of the field, Connacht could have an excellent backline next season. Aki is a player determined to do well and oozes confidence. He has already signalled his intent to make his mark in Ireland by eventually claiming an Ireland cap. And the three-year contract he signed gives his claims merit.
“Hopefully when the time is right and if I’m playing good footy, hopefully I can play for the Ireland international team.”
A bold claim indeed, with some fans claiming it borders on cockiness. But maybe an extra shot of confidence bordering cockiness is just what Connacht rugby need.
For too long, Connacht have been left with the wooden spoon between the four Irish teams. With a bit of confidence, more coup signings like Muliaina and Aki, and academy stars Henshaw and Kieran Marmion Connacht rugby might just surprise a few people next season.
By the end of the 2014/15 Pat Lam’s men may just be the proudest of four very proud provinces.
Steven Neville, Pundit Arena.