Change of fortune for Daly as he finds his fit at Connacht

Last season the centre was Connacht’s player of the year, and during the summer Farrell saw enough to give him a call to the Irish squad

For the pessimist being on loan would not indicate the career path was arcing as planned. For the optimist, well, they see it a fresh opportunity. New eyes watching, new thinking and a new team to play on in a different city. Still for Tom Daly it represented a last-chance saloon.

When he went on loan from Leinster to Connacht at the end of 2019 he was not really figuring in Leo Cullen’s plans. An early-season ACL injury against Perpignan had opened the door for younger players like Jimmy O’Brien and Conor O’Brien.

A former Irish rugby 7s player, Daly arrived to Andy Friend in Galway hopeful. He quickly found a better fit. Fortune began to change.

Last season Daly was Connacht’s player of the year, and during the summer Andy Farrell had seen enough of what he liked to call the centre into the Irish squad for matches against Japan and USA in July.

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While Daly didn’t win a cap, Farrell said enough to keep him lit, said he would be keeping an eye on his form in the URC in the run into the November International Series.

“Probably a dream I’ve had since I was a child,” says Daly about his recent elevation. “It was good for it to eventually become a reality, a bit longer than I would have liked, and a bit longer than a lot of other players in the country.

“Just to be there, coming towards the end of the season it was something that was on my mind a little bit. I knew I would have been close enough to making the squad because I had that good year, and eventually when I did get that email through, I was absolutely delighted.”

Queue

With Ireland he knows the queue for centre positions is getting longer, even outside the Bundee Aki, Garry Ringrose, Robbie Henshaw trio are Chris Farrell, James Hume and Stuart McCloskey. Shane Daly can also play centre, Keith Earls too.

This week Leinster’s Stuart Lancaster, claiming a liking for ball-playing centres, added another name when he said it would be no surprise if Ciaran Frawley was also knocking on the centre door. In a group of that size it becomes points of difference between the players as well as Farrell’s likes and needs.

“I think I bring a lot of energy, both sides of the ball, and just continue to do that,” says Daly. “Having consistency, backing up big performances with another big performance.

“And maybe that kicking game is probably something I would have on other centres in Ireland, and try to use that throughout games as well.

“Just little bits like that. You have to play to your strengths and show your uniqueness. It’s obviously a pretty stacked position in Ireland, and there’s plenty of lads banging on the door to get in there.

“I was disappointed not to get the cap in one of the games. But I had a good chat with Faz, and he said there were six games in the URC before the November squad is picked, so, yeah, put my best foot forward in Connacht.”

Ill discipline

A chance might be this weekend when the South African Bulls arrive in the Sportsground. Daly hopes the ill discipline that had Connacht reduced to 13 players last week in Cardiff was an early-season aberration more than a sign of things to come.

Restraint will again be a factor with Springbok utility back Johan Goosen playing at 10. With a wind also blowing a high penalty count from Connacht with Goosen’s boot could make the game problematic.

“We know all about Marcell Coetzee from his time at Ulster and especially Goosen at 10,” says Daly. “He looked very dangerous on the weekend against Leinster and his kicking game is really strong.

“He’ll kick the ball a mile, and so discipline has to be on point because any penalties within 50 or 60 metres, he’s going to have a go at them. There’s always going to be a wind at the Sportsground, so he’ll fancy himself from distance if that is behind his back.”

The 6’4’’ centre may also fancy himself. The difference between now and when he first arrived is that more people are now taking notice.

Johnny Watterson

Johnny Watterson

Johnny Watterson is a sports writer with The Irish Times