Away from the glare of the Rugby World Cup, Connacht centre Cathal Forde has been one of the most impressive performers across the opening two rounds of the BKT United Rugby Championship.
Forde has been at the heart of Connacht’s fast start to the new season. His player-of-the-match display during last week’s 34-26 win over Glasgow Warriors saw him star in midfield and show his versatility in the scrum and as a reliable goal-kicker.
The Galway man stepped in for a number of reset scrums as Glasgow sought to take advantage of Connacht number 8 Jarrad Butler’s sin-binning, while with JJ Hanrahan nursing a knee injury, he took over the kicking duties and scored 10 points.
A try scorer against the Ospreys the previous week, Forde toured South Africa with the Emerging Ireland squad last year, and Connacht head coach Pete Wilkins believes the 6ft 2in Academy graduate has a big season in him.
“Cathal has just continued to get better and improve throughout that pre-season period. It was obviously an extended pre-season and there was a lot of time in that,” explained Wilkins.
“He’s always had a standout point in terms of the lines he runs, the clean lines that tend to find a weaker point on a defender. Obviously with his athleticism and the size of him, he can often break those tackles or turn a half-break into a line break.
“He’s always had that, and I think he’s always had a calmness to his defence in terms of being able to watch the ball and decision-make through traffic.
“I think that’s always been there, and I think he’s at a stage of his career where the more games he plays, the more exposure he gets to the decision-making in attack and defence, he’s only going to get better with that experience and that exposure.
“He has continued to get better, he works hard at all aspects of his game, including his kicking. That pre-season period and leading into the game minutes that he’s had in the early rounds, that’s just helped him to grow.
“We’re excited about where he will go for us this season and hopefully over the seasons to come.”
Still only 15 games into his professional career, Forde turns 22 this Saturday. Coincidentally, it is the day of the first interprovincial derby of the 2023/24 campaign as Connacht face Ulster or the first time since their quarter-final in Belfast last May.
With it also being the westerners’ third successive match at the Sportsground, they are determined to finish off this first block on a high. They have lost only once in Galway in any competition during the last year. That sole defeat was at the hands of Ulster last December.
This has been Connacht’s best start to a season since 2014/15, and they will have Jack Carty, their record points scorer, back on board for the third round visit of Dan McFarland’s men.
“Jack Carty is available this week, he’s been cleared to play. His facial injury has cleared up really well, so he’s available for selection,” confirmed Wilkins.
“We’re pretty good overall. Tom Farrell came off at half-time (against Glasgow) with a wrist issue, but he’s absolutely fine. He’s bounced back well this time.
“JJ obviously hurt that knee catching a high ball. It’s not serious, we’ll sort of assess him in the first part of the week. We won’t take any risks with that.”
Both of Connacht’s opening victories have been by the same scoreline (34-26), with late try-scoring bonus points conceded to both the Ospreys and Glasgow. Former Leinster and Australia forward Scott Fardy is fresh in as the province’s defence coach.
Wilkins saw enough in those performances to suggest they are on the right road defensively, saying: “I think there’s no concerns around the defence. The good thing for us at this stage of the season is we’ve had some really impressive defensive sets within games.
“It’s obviously about now polishing that and making sure we don’t give teams the access points that they can get 20 points or whatever. You’re always looking to keep the opposition to a minimum.
“But we’re pleased with how the defence is tracking, but all areas of our game will have to grow over the coming weeks and months.”
The Main Stand, the Grand Thornton Stand and the Clan Terrace are all sold out for Saturday night’s interprovincial showdown, and while Connacht are riding high in second place, Ulster are right behind them following their triumphs over Zebre Parma (40-36) and the Vodacom Bulls (26-19).
This will be a significant test of how far Connacht have come in a short space of time under Wilkins, and given Ulster now have their own 3G pitch at Kingspan Stadium, he reckons McFarland’s side could look to overcome the westerners with a more expansive style of play.
“Any game against Ulster comes with enormous edge, a lot of intensity, a lot of physicality. All interpros do, but certainly the Connacht-Ulster encounters have been particularly abrasive and particularly exciting, I guess, over the last few seasons.
“You add in the results at the end of last season, and that will certainly add fuel to their fire. We’re expecting them to come at us strong.
“It will be a really good challenge for us actually, because we stepped up from the Ospreys to Glasgow, who are a quality team, but to have a big provincial rival and all the emotion that comes with that from both sides, it’s a really cool challenge as the next piece for us.”
Wilkins added: “Ulster have certainly talked about expanding their attacking game. Dan has spoken openly about that.
“They’ve obviously recognised that with the artificial surface going in up there in Belfast, and just from growing their game from being contenders, they’re desperate to achieve that silverware at some stage.
“I think they’ve seen that as part of their game they can evolve on the back of what’s been a really well-organised, physical, good set-piece mauling team. It will be interesting to see where that takes them.
“It’ll be really interesting as well this weekend because certainly our encounters with them over the last few seasons, their structure, their box-kicking, their mauling game, those physical elements of the game have been really key parts of how they’ve come at us.
“It’ll be really interesting to see that end-product on the weekend and how they decide to go after us. Whether that expansive game does come into play, or whether they go back to what’s served them pretty well at times in the past. I’m looking forward to see it from that angle as well.”