Elwood will leave Connacht with big boots to fill
RUGBY:ERIC ELWOOD will today confirm his shock intention to step down at the end of the season as head coach of Connacht, thereby bringing to an end his 24-year association with the province.
After 16 years as probably their most celebrated player and five years as assistant coach, Elwood has given his all towards overseeing a remarkable resurrection in Connacht’s fortunes over the last three years as head coach.
And therein probably lies the rub, for Elwood probably gave too much of himself.
He has gradually appointed a strong team of assistants around him, with increasingly professional structures off the pitch, including a Professional Games Board and a newly-appointed chief executive, Tom Sears, further lightening his load.
Yet Elwood scarcely took a week’s holidays over the summer, much less a day off in his often all-consuming working week.
With a young family, he has decided to step away from the game at the end of the season when his current three-year contract as Connacht coach comes to an end, and he will explain his decision at a press conference in Galway today, at which it is expected Sears will also outline the process for finding a successor.
Elwood informed the Connacht players of his decision at training last Monday, having told Sears and other members of the Connacht management team last week.
Nonetheless, the timing is curious, coming as it does in the immediate aftermath of probably Connacht’s best league result (last Friday’s 34-6 win over Leinster) and less than two weeks before the province’s second Heineken Cup campaign.
Elwood played 168 times for Connacht, remaining loyal to his native province despite a stint away from Galwegians with Lansdowne and offers from other provinces, and he scored a record 318 points for Connacht in the league.
Making his debut against Wales in 1993, Elwood also played 35 times for Ireland, scoring 296 points, in a career which incorporated the 1995 and 1999 World Cups in South Africa and France.
Elwood was coach to the Ireland Under-20 rugby team which won a Grand Slam in the 2006-07 Six Nation Championship, and after five seasons as assistant coach to Michael Bradley, he took over as head coach at the start of the 2010-11 season.
Under Elwood, Connacht began playing a more ambitious brand of rugby, while upping their try tally, tightening up their defence significantly and improving their results.
Connacht finished ninth in the league two seasons ago and followed that up with an all-time high of eighth last season, despite the additional demands of their first Heineken Cup campaign in a pool featuring French champions Toulouse, prospective English champions Harlequins and another Premiership club in Gloucester.
Connacht drew record crowds to the Sportsground, which has been expanded with the construction of the Clan Terrace, and in their final pool game they sensationally beat Harlequins to deny Conor O’Shea’s team a place in the knock-out stages.
Elwood looked set to be head coach of Connacht for as long as he wanted to be, and as the only indigenous head coach at provincial level, his departure at the end of the season might also mean none of the four provinces will be coached by an Irish man.
The IRFU’s progression ladder is, for example, nothing like its refereeing production line and there is no obvious indigenous successor.
Assistant/backs coach Billy Millard, a former coach of the Australian 7s who has spent two years with the Cardiff Blues, would be the front-liner from within, while conceivably there might be a more expanded role for Dan Parks.
By dint of giving such early notice of his intentions, Elwood has at least afforded Connacht plenty of time to appoint a successor.
But given the passion and commitment he brought to the job, and his status as a luminary of Connacht rugby, he will be a very tough act to follow.