Connacht Rugby fans have reason to be optimistic ahead of next season, according to Alan Quinlan who says the province "is on the up" under manager Andy Friend.
Quinlan was on Thursday’s OTB AM and provided a health check on Connacht’s hopes for next season as the early pre-season preparations begin in the west of the country.
“Things are on the up for them. I think there should be a lot of optimism there,” Quinlan said of Friend’s side.
Quinlan singled out the success of Friend individually as a major transformative factor in the province’s fortunes.
“What Andy Friend did last year was brilliant to get them qualified for Europe again. Given the year they had before under Kieran Keane and the negativity that was coming out of there. Andy Friend was just a breath of fresh air.”
While things didn’t work out for Keane as the first manager in the post-Pat Lam era, Friend appears to have rejuvenated the squad with everything it lacked under Keane, namely, Quinlan said, togetherness and joy while playing.
“Maybe Keane’s downfall was he just came in and wanted results and didn't get close to the players but I think the brief that Andy Friend would have got was to reunite the group after a tough season and that's exactly what he did.
“It happens when you have a bit of success and are winning a couple of games – you can smile again.
“They showed a lot of quality last year. They showed some of that excitement they had the year they won the Pro14. Their attacking game was really good and they seemed to play with a smile on their face. And they had a fantastic year.”
While European rugby is a huge readdition to the soon to be redeveloped Sportsground, Connacht have also impressed Quinlan with some of the signings and figures they have introduced to the squad so far.
Earlier in the summer, the province signed 25-year-old Australian winger John Porch who Quinlan thinks will greatly add to the quality of the team with his pace.
In addition, Quinlan highlighted a number of players who have been promoted from the academy such as Paul Boyle and Paddy McAllister as well as the signing of Stephen Fitzgerald, previously of Munster, on a full-time contract who will all add depth to the squad.
With a redeveloped stadium on the way and a return to European rugby, the only caveat in Quinlan's bright prediction for the province was that now there is an expectation on the side.
"There is probably more pressure on Andy Friend now this year because last year it could only get better, while now there is pressure to perform."
"It will be an interesting season for them. They have a tough pool in Europe but teams don't like going to the Sportsground on wet, windy December nights or January nights so it's brilliant for them.
And, being in Europe is really important when you can have that excitement of going from the Pro 14 and then looking forward to Europe. They are big, big weekends."