Connacht are finally going places
Yes, match nights can be misty and primal and soaked and no one at the Sportsground is claiming the place is the last word in luxury. But as Connacht face Harlequins in their final away tie of this year’s
Heineken Cup today, there is a sense the club has lost its how do- you-solve-a-problem tag and is beginning to find its voice and place in Irish rugby.
“There is this sense we have something really good just bubbling under the surface here now,” Eric Elwood mused this week. Training had finished; it was getting dark and end-of day traffic was brisk along College Road.
Elwood is so much a part of the furniture at the Sportsground – “He’s been here since Noah was a lad,” was the gruff tribute from Tom Sears, the new chief executive who has brought a north of England directness to Connacht’s official communiqués – itmust be hard for club staff to imagine his absence from the place next season.
“It’s going to bestrange without him,” Sears accepts. Elwood has not allowed his decision to step down as Connacht coach to become a distraction to the players but that this is his final season has coloured the narrative of the season.
It was there in the recent television documentary The West’s Awake, an unexpectedly raw and honest glimpse behind the immense physical and emotional burden of running a professional ball club against whom the odds are generally stacked.
“We were nervous about doing it,” Elwood can admit now. “It was a difficult one because we were all afraid of how we would be perceived and I was very conscious myself as coach that it didn’t just come across as rough and ready and up you go.
“But as a whole, in terms of how Connacht was portrayed, I think people got it. I’ve had emails and calls from people in America and Australia from people . . . the message has been ‘Love what ye are doing, how can I help, miss ye’. The reaction was definitely more good than negative.”
It is easy to see why. Whether intentionally or not, the documentary – which has been nominated for an Ifta – illuminated the very qualities which Elwood feels make Connacht different. Like any coach, he has a primary interest in winning as many games per season as possible
In that respect, Connacht is just like any other ball club. But at the same time, Connacht’s separateness – the traditional underdog status allied to fierce pride, the slight anti-establishment ethos that drifts in from the stands and the west of Ireland territorial thing – is beginning to become a selling point.
The province’s academy has become a huge asset, with year one member Robbie Henshaw drawing rave notices after getting his break at fullback on the senior side, while year-two scrumhalf Kieran Marmion has struck up a promising partnership with Dan Parks.
“Young players will get their chance with Connacht,” says Ronan Loughney. The Galway prop turned professional with the province eight years ago, having come through the academy system.
“In the past, it was seen as a place where players come to get game time. But now I do think players feel they can make a career here. I know I’m saying that even as Mike McCarthy is heading to Leinster but there is not the mass exodus of five or six years ago.
“I am from Galway and grew up watching the team. There are opportunities for players here: it is a province on the up. You see Eoin Griffin and Tiernan (O’Halloran) coming through – I imagine the Connacht academy must be one of the most successful around now.”
For Loughney, who grew up watching Connacht, committing to the province was never a difficult decision. Last summer he achieved a long-held ambition when he won a senior cap on the Ireland tour of New Zealand. He believes the perception of Connacht among Irish players has shifted significantly over the past three seasons.
“They don’t see us as the baby brother of the provinces any more.”
But the central task for Connacht is to establish the club and province as a viable alternative for promising young players rather than a temporary stop-off which gives them the exposure they need to get a contract from one of the other three provinces. Connacht fans could pencil a ghost team of players who flourished only to disappear in the deep squad reserves of Leinster and Ulster.