IF YOU’D ASKED Connacht fans to predict their province’s first-choice back three for the start of the 2020/21 season just a few months ago, not too many of them would have come up with the combination of Alex Wootton, Peter Sullivan, and John Porch.
Former Australia 7s international Porch would have featured in most selections, of course, given that he was one of Connacht’s best players last season.
But Wootton only had his loan move from Munster to Connacht confirmed in early July, while Sullivan had been impressing for the province’s A team last season but only had first senior professional contract announced in June.
Andy Friend has liked what he’s seen from all three, however, and after their very promising showing together against Ulster upon rugby’s restart back in August, the same trio started Saturday’s Pro14 win over Glasgow Warriors.
Wootton, Sullivan, and Porch stood out again, nowhere more obviously than for Bundee Aki’s stunning second try.
It was Sullivan’s chase of a Caolin Blade box-kick that handed Connacht their opportunity to strike, the 22-year-old right wing getting into the air to force a knock-on from Glasgow’s Ratu Tagive.
Denis Buckley grabbed the bouncing ball, then passes from Paul Boyle and Tom Farrell got it into Porch’s hands as the fullback surged forward, sensing the opportunity against the disorganised Warriors, accelerating past Peter Horne, swerving away from Scott Cummings, then jump-stepping outside Adam Hastings and taking a high tackle for his troubles as he got the ball away to Wootton.
With space in front of him, Wootton sprinted down the left-hand five-metre channel and up towards the Glasgow 22 as the visitors’ fullback, Huw Jones, swung across to tackle him.
But rather than dying with the ball, Wootton dropped it onto his right foot and delicately grubber-kicked ahead for the hard-working and impressively pacy Aki to surge past Horne and gather to dive over for an emphatic, tongue-bearing finish.
There were several other glimpses of the Connacht back three’s class, notably in the build-up to Quinn Roux’s try around 10 minutes before. Porch carried hard first, then Sullivan made more metres before Wootton continued the momentum down the right and offloaded inside to Farrell, from where the forwards took over.
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26-year-old Wootton looks fully fit once again and revitalised by the chance of scene, while Porch appears to be improving with every game for Connacht. Meanwhile, Lansdowne FC man Sullivan is rewarding Connacht for giving him a shot after he had missed out with his native Leinster.
Connacht have several other strong options in their back three, with stalwarts Tiernan O’Halloran [hip] and Matt Healy [calf] due to return from injury to training this week, while Stephen Fitzgerald is set to re-integrate into team sessions later this month after ACL surgery earlier this year.
New signing Ben O’Donnell, another of Friend’s former Australia 7s players, has now arrived in the country, while the province’s academy includes the talented Colm de Buitléar and Oran McNulty.
But Friend is certainly pleased with what he has seen so far from from Wootton, Sullivan, and Porch.
“I know when we put them out against Ulster, even talking to those guys before the game, they were sort of looking at themselves saying, ‘Are we the right back three?’ but they went out and delivered a great performance in that game,” said Friend on Saturday in Galway.
“They’re very different players. Alex Wootton on the left wing, he never dies with the football, a couple of beautiful little kicks through today when often you’ll see wingers get thrown into touch. He keeps that ball alive, which is really, really positive.
“Peter Sullivan on the other side is a big, physical man and he’s got a lot of presence around his game with what he does in attack and defence. He’s still learning the game at this level because it’s only his second time out there but there’s a lot to like about Pete.
“Then Johnny Porch at the back, he’s just got gas. He’s got gas and he sees space. He brings real punch and energy, which is what you want from a fullback. The three of them collectively make up a pretty neat package and that’s the second time we’ve seen it and the second time we’ve liked it.”