Connacht are finally going places

Sat, Jan 12, 2013, 00:00

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.”

Qualities

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.

The frustration at “losing” players to the other provinces underlined the war of words that broke out between Sears and Leinster coach Joe Schmidt after it was confirmed McCarthy – who is having the season of his life for Connacht – would sign for Leinster at the end of the season.

“None at all,” Sears responds when asked if he has any regrets about the row.

“We want to keep our best players here. At the moment, we might be in need of a bit more help than the other provinces. We were bitterly disappointed to lose Mike. Now we have to make sure that our best players don’t have that option to make and that they are where they want to be.”

Lure of Leinster

Nobody could blame McCarthy, who is 31 and gave six fullhearted seasons to Connacht, for deciding he wanted to play with one of the best teams in Europe. But won’t all of Connacht’s outstanding players find the lure of Leinster or Munster irresistible?

“That depends on the player,” Sears argues. “You look at Leinster – they have won three Heineken Cups while we are at the start of a journey. We are trying to sell the idea to players and supporters and sponsors that if they join us on the journey now, they are going to be in on something really special. When we win the Rabo, when we win the Heineken Cup – because we think we will – that is  an incredible thing to be a part of.”

Loughney is convinced the idea of Connacht as a club that is going places has already established itself in the dressingroom. The graph of improvement is exacting. Connacht’s 15-game losing streak was one of the most compelling and riveting stories of last season: the breaks of the game simply deserted the side and it took a ferocious emotional toll.

But in an odd way, that bleak run – and its memorable end against Harlequins – bore testimony to how much the game and the team means to Connacht.

“For me, I have to give credit to the players because their team spirit never broke,” Elwood says. “But the supporters stuck with us too. I know all supporters are loyal but to support Connacht is a different thing.

“They are special because they often go into games not expecting us to win. We were losing games but it wasn’t for the want of trying or effort. And the fans appreciated that. That is part of what weare about.

“Still, I am in the business of winning games and it was important to get away from the “Well done, but . . .” attitude. We are getting better but it is slow. This year, we feel the Cardiff match was a disappointing start.

“And in the last few games: we dominated against Dragons

for long periods but got two yellow cards. Dan (Parks) had a kick to win the Edinburgh game and we are upfront about that –we are both kickers . . . the kick goes over or it doesn’t. We were over the line against Munster and didn’t get the ball down.

“So it is about being able to put teams away. We left points behind us. That is the difficult thing. It is a habit. We are not used to being in that position often. Even against Dragons the last night, you can’t say: ‘Well, that’s in the bag until the whistle’. You end up trying to defend a lead rather than build on it.

“We still need to learn how to go for it. And, as we know, Galway is one of the best nightclubs in Ireland. It has its festivals and is very cultural. It’s a university town and is very vibrant in the summer. But we are the only show in town in the winter and we need to tap into that.The advent of the Clan Terrace has been positive. So we want it to stay unique and hostile for teams but still provide facilities for home supporters and make it a good place for visitors to enjoy a game.”

Sears arrived in Connacht fresh from his previous role as chief executive of Cricket Kenya and was immediately taken with the atmosphere at the ground. “I think it rivals the Shed at Gloucester or Welford Road. It is a bearpit: a proper rugby atmosphere.” But what it is not is a rugby stadium. It is, as Sears puts it, “a greyhound track bent and broken to facilitate rugby.”

Permanent home

Developing a permanent home for Connacht rugby is chief among his ambitions. “We need a bespoke rugby stadium,” he argues. “We have to be masters of our own destiny. It is all about money – we will lean on the IRFU and they have been really supportive but we need to generate our own funds – and that means people coming to watch us and generating more commercial interest.”

Fundraising has become a regular aspect of Connacht’s home and away matches. Some 8,500 attended the home match against Harlequins. The ambition is for that season high to become a regular attendance.

There are 29 rugby clubs in the province and several – Claremorris and Bangor in Mayo and South Sligo are only three years old. Connacht are beginning to go deep into the province, holding schools clinics as far west as Achill Island.

Last year, Scoil Chuimsitheach Chiaráin in Carraroe became the first Gaeltacht school to win a provincial title. But there are large pockets of the province where the game remains almost foreign.

“Yeah, that would be the case in the majority of Connacht, says Lyndon Jones, the club’s domestic rugby manager.

“Some of the clubs, like Portumna and Loughrea, are beginning to develop underage structures now. Schools in Sligo and Mayo are starting to compete now. And we are starting to reach into places that had no rugby. In Roscommon, for example, Ballaghaderreen now has a club. We are making approaches to get rugby into Strokestown. People are starting to come to us to establish rugby in their communities.”

Buses carrying fans from the interior are now a common sight on match nights at the Sportsground. The excitement generated by having Heineken Cup rugby has unquestionably helped. It remains to be seen if and how far attendances dip if Connacht do not qualify for the Heineken Cup next season.

“The noise coming in off that Clan Terrace, it is becoming a formidable place for teams,” Loughney says. “I think our fans see we are improving year by year and will stay with us.”

The presence of Elwood as coach has made it easy to sell the idea of Connacht as a club rooted in community values. His rise through the local club in Galway city to become Ireland’s number 10 was a story that resonated through the very heart of the province.

Choosing the right successor is of untold importance. Sears accepts the decision not to include Eddie O’Sullivan on the interview shortlist leaves the club open to criticism if things don’t go well for whoever is appointed. Connacht did meet with the former Ireland coach but opted not to interview him.

Right decision

“It doesn’t matter who you appoint or who you don’t. Some people will disagree with it and will point to who you might have picked or should have picked. You make what you believe is the right decision . . that is what we are in this job for, to make the right decision based on a whole raft of criteria. We have involved the players. They have had a big part of this,” says Sears.

“We deliberately made it an open process to see who was out there. We didn’t want to be narrow-minded and miss anybody that might be the perfect fit for us. And we know you can’t replace Eric with another Eric. There isn’t one. He is steeped in Connacht rugby and driven and we will miss him.”

You can’t help but think that will be at the back of all minds in the visiting dressingroom at the Stoop today.

This, after all, is vintage Connacht country – the odds stacked against the man nobody believing this is a game they can win – except themselves.

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