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Smiling in Connacht green | Wootton talks comeback and Zebo rivalry

After a strong debut for Connacht on Sunday, Alex Wootton is happy to be back to enjoying his rug...


Smiling in Connacht green | Wootton talks comeback and Zebo rivalry

After a strong debut for Connacht on Sunday, Alex Wootton is happy to be back to enjoying his rugby.

The former Munster winger spoke on OTB AM on Thursday about his renewed confidence that helped his side take home a 26-20 victory over Ulster.

“The first text I got after the game was from my fiancé Lucy, and it was: ‘it's great to see you out there with a smile in your face it's been so long’,” Wootton said.

The Connacht backline looked fluid against Ulster, bringing back memories of the side that won the league under Pat Lam.

This was particularly encouraging for Wootton, as he has played very little rugby over the past two years, suffering the effects of injuries from 2018, and was raring to prove himself again.

Connacht head coach Andy Friend brought him into the side on a loan contract, with a clear idea of where he wants to go with Wootton this year, according to Wootton himself.

“One of the first things I noticed when I first had my first conversation with him [Friend] over the phone was how easy he was to speak to,” Wootton said.

“He just gets you, well he got me anyway… when I put the phone down, I wanted to almost call him back again and ask him more questions.

“He understood where I was coming from… a position where I was at Munster and I wasn't playing rugby… and I had just come off the back of an injury…. I came to Ireland to play rugby and that wasn't happening.”

23 August 2020; Alex Wootton of Connacht is tackled by James Hume of Ulster during the Guinness PRO14 Round 14 match between Connacht and Ulster at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

This comes after a disappointing two years for the 26-year-old from Cheshire in England in which he only played around six matches, having played in 23 games the season prior.

Wootton had equalled the Pro14’s record for most tries scored in a single game, scoring four tries against the Cheetahs in the second round of the 2017/18 season, in what he called his breakout season.

However, he drew heavy criticism from the media and fans alike in Munster’s losing effort in the 2018 Champions Cup semi-final against Racing 92, in which he started ahead of Simon Zebo.

Wootton was competing with Zebo for a starting position at the time and mentioned how good he felt that he was selected ahead of the Irish international for that match.

“For me it was great because I got selected ahead of a [British & Irish] Lion, ahead of an international,” Wootton said.

“I was confident going into the game because obviously I had a hell of a season, kind of like a breakthrough season, and I was ready to take the game. But we didn't perform on a team basis.”

He acknowledged that the team did not perform well in that match, and his performance in particular was not up to his standards.

“I obviously got subbed, I didn’t have a great game either don't get me wrong, and after the game it all fell in the way of ‘Simon [Zebo] should have been picked’,” Wootton said.

Despite the criticism, he talked about the rivalry he had with Zebo on the training field at the time.

“I knew the first day that I rocked up to Munster my first senior session that I was better than him,” Wootton said.

“We had that rivalry you can say on the training field and it obviously came down to a decision towards end of the season and a game.

“Looking back now at me and Zebo, he made me definitely a lot better and I think I made him a hell of a lot better as well.”

After the disappointment against Racing, Wootton then went on to have surgery on his injured knee and came back for two games in November last year, still struggling to rediscover his form from 2017/18.

“I look back now and Covid was the best thing that happened to me,” Wootton said.

“It gave me extra time to be able to rehab and sort niggles out and I really feel revamped and refreshed.”

Although he still currently still lives in Limerick, he is now happy to be a part of the Connacht set up and could be looking to beyond the one-year loan contract if the season goes as well as his debut.

“It is just so refreshing,” Wootton said.

“Whether or not it is the right place for me, time will tell.

“At this moment in time I am arriving through the gates with a smile on my face every day I’m in and it just feels great.”

It looks as if Friend has seen something in him that he wants to nurture, and Wootton is currently enjoying his time with the province.

“I do think I am one of those players that he [Friend] is training a certain way and enjoying it,” Wootton said.

“A happy fighter is a dangerous fighter, so I do feel very happy with the decision that Connacht has had to make on me and the decision I had to make as well at the moment.”

Connacht are already out of the Pro14 playoffs, meaning that this Sunday’s match against Munster will be their last game for the 2019/20 season.

Although it is expected that Friend will be making a number of changes to his side, Wootton will be hoping that he can put on a good performance against his former side should he be given the nod.

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Alex Wootton Champions Cup Comeback Connacht Munster Pro14 Racing 92 Simon Zebo