Steady rock now required in a sea of change


ON RUGBY:Eric Elwood’s departure highlights how Connacht will need a calming hand to guide them through what look to be tricky times ahead, writes GERRY THORNLEY

TOMORROW NIGHT at 9.30pm, TG4 will screen The West’s Awake, the fly-on-the-wall, hour-long documentary on Connacht rugby. Given unprecedented access to an Irish rugby side over the course of their historic entree into Heineken Cup rugby last season, and apparently a good deal more besides, it is a fascinating and, as it transpires, uncannily timely insight into professional rugby in Europe’s westernmost outpost.

The audience applauded roundly at last Wednesday’s premiere in Galway, though given it was preaching to the converted that is perhaps not so surprising. Some of us wouldn’t mind a two or two-and-a-half hour version which, sold on DVD, would promote the brand even more. The West’s Awake gives a wonderful sense of place and, from the very outset, a sense of the odds Connacht are up against and how much Eric Elwood was the heartbeat of the effort.

These are interesting and exciting times in Connacht, but now they are a little nervier too. Progress on the pitch has been met by progress off it, with improvement in playing strength, performances and results matched by the building of the Clan Terrace, overdue corporate hospitality and other ground improvements, all of which has prompted improved attendances year on year.

That heightened local identity with the team, though Elwood would hate to claim so himself, is in large measure down to the local hero made good. But now the main man is leaving.

Maybe it’s our nature, and our innate inclination for gossip that goes with an island mentality, but quite why Elwood’s explanation hasn’t been widely taken at face value is extraordinary. If there’s one thing we know about Elwood it is that he is as straight as a die. He has retained his innate good humour through the last two and a bit years but he was also looking increasingly careworn. It’s one thing being arguably your province’s greatest ever player, and even being an assistant coach for five years. It’s quite another though, being the Director of Rugby in the ultra-demanding environment of professional team sport.

Being a heart-on-sleeve man of Connacht through and through, Elwood would have felt this onerous responsibility more heavily than anyone. Galway is a fantastic city, the most cosmopolitan in Ireland, but it is still a bubble, all the more so for someone like Elwood. There would have been little or no escape.

He wouldn’t have done himself any favours either. He would have felt a responsibility to do everything. It was ironic to note that assistant coaches Billy Millard and Dan McFarland fronted yesterday’s weekly press conference. Virtually every other Monday for the last two years it has been Elwood.

In his planning for this season, he took little or no summer holidays with his family in Connemara. He especially misses not being at his three kids’ sports events. He simply needs a break and clear evidence that it had become too much is that he has nothing else lined up.

That it has come to this suggests not only was he not a good delegator, but neither were those around him and had there been more leadership in the organisation perhaps Elwood could have been encouraged – nay ordered – to take more time off from rugby.

There’s no reason for believing Elwood will now be a lame duck head coach, but now will be the time for leadership, beginning with the players. At first glance, last Friday’s 25-0 defeat in Ravenhill wouldn’t augur well.

Willing, resilient but limited – a poor scrum and poor ball retention obliging them to live off scraps – the odds were always against Connacht backing up their performance against Leinster a week later against an unbeaten Ulster side at home, fired up and virtually at full-strength.

As the first six penalties went against them and Connacht waited 28 minutes for their first penalty – en route to a first-half penalty count of 11-2 in the home side’s favour – one was reminded that Connacht have for many years nursed a degree of paranoia about Irish refereeing of derbies involving them. And they have the statistical evidence to prove it.

One former player in Galway’s Eye Cinema last Friday emerged wondering if Connacht don’t overplay their underdog hand. But it’s the hand they will probably always be dealt. The Sword of Damocles – in the shape of the IRFU hatchet – is not currently poised over them but the financial backing for Ulster a couple of years ago or on an annual basis for all the other three provinces will never be matched out west.

As far as most in Lansdowne Road think, Connacht exist in large part to ensure the other three compete annually in the Heineken Cup. That’s the way they actually decreed it for years. But as The West’s Awake also underlines, allowing Connacht to occasionally sip from the Cup has been a boon for the game there, with occasions such as the 9,000 crowd for the visit of Toulouse both a charming example of the kind of David v Goliath match-up which is the essence of the Cup, and a damning indictment of the thinking behind their putative axing.

Now though the sabre-rattling from the English and the French clubs and their attempts to re-draw the Heineken Cup’s format and qualification process endangers the most vulnerable. Somehow, Connacht have to stay strong and relevant, by remaining competitive in the Rabo Pro 12, by occasionally appearing in the Heineken Cup and also producing Irish internationals.

On top of all this, the creation of the Professional Games Board and the appointment of a new CEO in Tom Sears, for all his impressive credentials and presence in the role, adds to the sea of change and with it slight uncertainty in Connacht.

But, like Michael Cheika at Leinster, at least Elwood has given his province plenty of time to choose a successor – and they should use it. The usual names will be bandied about, and Elwood had barely finished his announcement before a cast of big hitters were predictably putting forth the credentials of Eddie O’Sullivan, who was assistant coach there to George Hook once and was in line to become head coach until deciding not to on the eve of the 1996-97 season – which ironically led to Warren Gatland taking charge at short notice.

Mike Ruddock will be mentioned, as will Anthony Foley, and there could be a case for Brian Walsh, with the IRFU perhaps keen to exert some influence here as well in ensuing an Irish appointment. But if the Elwood era has highlighted one thing, it is that Connacht ought not have somebody foisted on them.

As the appointments of Cheika, Joe Schmidt, Mark Anscombe and Rob Penney also highlight, there are hidden gems who needn’t necessarily have been a head coach at Super 15 level. There is also a dark horse such as Dr Phil Pretorius, the former Tonga and Bulls coach, who has pitched up in Corinthians. Amid such a sea of change, as with Elwood’s appointment, there is much to be said for promoting from within again and promoting Millard or McFarland.

In any event, with the PGB and Sears in place, there is reason for believing that the requisite leadership is there, and that they can get this right. They have to.

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