Connacht have long since been viewed as Ireland’s poor relation but Heineken Cup qualification and a stadium face-lift are putting paid to that – and the mastermind behind their U20 grand slam believes the western province is booming.
After an impressive 32-18 victory over Munster U20s at Dunbarry Park last weekend, Connacht completed a hat-trick of victories over the Irish province to complete their first grand slam for ten years.
From the outside looking in, it may come as a surprise but Academy manager Nigel Carolan – a former Connacht wing with 53 appearances to his name – thinks differently.
Having undertaken his role in 2004, Carolan has set about installing a development system that can compete with the so-called Irish big guns, and their victory this season is sure to breed further success.
Traditionally, rugby in the west is not the mainstream sport it is in the rest of the Emerald Isle – hurling and Gaelic football take priority and those who wish to follow a career with the oval ball flee eastward.
But Carolan believes those days are over and while he is the first to admit that his grand slam winning troops have a long way to go before reaching the top level, he believes the environment in west is now such that professional careers can be sustained in Connacht.
“I do think that we are seeing a new era and a new culture in Connacht,” he said. “There is a resurgence in the west and we believe that indigenous players can carve out a career.
“There has been a lot of investment with the help of the IRFU and the game in Connacht is growing. There are some very good players here and they now have some very good facilities.
“The Academy players have a very long way to go before reaching the professional ranks but it is a viable option.
“There has been a lot of hard work from the team to get to where they are and this is just there next step, there is still a very long way to go.
“It’s part of a system that is constantly evolving but it is going in the right direction.”
In recent years, Connacht have proved an effective stepping stone in many a young Irish player’s career – Fionn Carr, who is the club’s all-time try-scorer with 34, signed up after leaving University College Dublin while the likes of Ian Keatley and Sean Cronin were snapped up after failing to make the grade at Leinster and Munster respectively.
These days however, the senior side is flourishing in the RaboDirect PRO12 and were lying third going into the weekend's matches.
And while Carolan admits that the club’s goal is to produce top level players from an early age, he is adamant that Connacht’s open-door policy remains.
“We’re very hopeful that a lot of the current team go on to be selected for the U20s national team,” he added.
“But we’re keen to keep the doors open and offer players who have not made it elsewhere the chance as well.
“We still only have a small demographic and we want to give players from all over the country the opportunity.”