Last night Brendan Fanning broke the news that Eric Elwood is to leave Connacht at the end of the season. Hugely passionate about the province, managing which must be one of the most thankless jobs in rugby, it appears that the onerous task is taking its toll on him. Fanning’s article mentioned a tendency to take defeats badly, while Thornley today alluded to him giving almost too much of himself to the role. The poor fella is exhausted it seems.
Elwood has come to be seen as Mr. Connacht, the personification of modern Connacht rugby, having spent most of the last 16 years either playing for them or on the coaching team in some capacity. It is in his two-and-a-bit years as head coach, however, that he’s arguably had the biggest impact. He’s to be commended for his unwillingness to accept the sorry lot with which the IRFU would be happy to lumber the province – the shrewd acquisition of Dan Parks is testimiony to his hard work. Two years ago such a signing would have been impossible.
He’s also been part of a drive to bring fans through the gates of the Sportsground, presiding over a huge upsurge in season ticket sales, from the low-hundreds to over three thousand. It’s fine work when you consider the package on offer: watching some fairly stodgy rugby on a dog track, usually in horizontal rain.
On the pitch, he’s improved matters too. Connacht finished eighth in the league last season and participated in their first Heineken Cup. They’ve had their ups and downs, and looked to have started this season poorly, but sparked emphatically into life on Friday night with a 34-6 trouncing of Leinster. Indeed, with Parks expertly piloting the ship and the entire three-quarter line outstanding, it was a highwatermark for Connacht, both in terms of result and the calibre of rugby played.
It’s going to be a tough act to follow. We generally have little time for those who question whether coaches ‘buy into the [insert region/club/Munster here] ethos’ or understand the [region/club/Munster] zeitgeist’, but in the case of Connacht it is important the incoming coach understands what Connacht rugby is all about, and how steep a challenge it is to coach them. For certain, nobody had a better grasp of that than Elwood, and an appointment with someone who has or had links with Connacht is likely.
So who are the contenders?
Dan Parks: Connacht is be an ideal role for a young coach to cut his teeth, and the Australian strikes us as the type who might just be interested in kicking off a career here. Whatever you think of Parks 0.5-dimensional play in a Scotland shirt, there is no denying his is a very high class Pro12 player, and has made the most (indeed, far more than anyone expected when he came on to the scene) of his talent. He may just relish the chance, and by going to Connacht in the first place, has already demonstrated his suitability, personality-wise. Will be on the coaching team in some capacity.
Axel Foley: Foley was widely-tipped to get the Munster job after making such a big impact on the pack last season, but had to settle for a passenger seat in the Penney Revolution. It’s odds-on he will be in the mixer for the head coach job in Munster once Penney departs, but if he would prefer to cut his teeth in a head coaching role somewhere else, then come back, Connacht would be ideal. It’s worth noting, however, that this didn’t work for Mick Bradley, who was overlooked when Deccie went to D4.
Eddie O’Sullivan: One more experienced name that instantly springs to mind is Eddie. He’s coached there before and presumably has a good knowledge of the province. For all his baggage, O’Sullivan remains a technically outstanding coach, and it would be a fallacy if his vast knowledge was left to decay outside of Irish rugby. There is no doubt he will have the hunger to repair his reputation after festering/stewing for 4 years. His USA! USA! USA! team didn’t disgrace themselves in RWC11, and indeed, it was felt Eddie scored something of a tactical coup over Deccie when they met Ireland.
Bernard Jackman: Berch is currently coaching at Grenoble in France, and they are making a pretty decent stab at their first Top14 season in a while – sitting pretty in 6th, ahead of such
bosh merchants luminaries as Racing Metro, Castres and Perpignan. However, Berch was less than gushing about his time in Connacht in his book, and perhaps some bridges may still be smouldering. If some hugs can be engineered, it’s a possibility.
Deccie Kidney: Deccie will be out of work in June, and will presumably be anxious to renew his relationship with Connacht after studiously ignoring anything Western for the last four years. Perhaps he would welcome a move back to the club game, but we’re fairly certain the facilities at Buccanears don’t measure up to Carton House.
Warren Gatland: What better way to move on to a new challenge after a Lions victory in Oz? Gatty got his coaching start in the West, and has achieved all he can with Wales (and indeed in the Northern Hemisphere) - the combative Kiwi would love to be in a position where potshots at the IRFU are not only smiled upon, but positively encouraged. Let’s hope he doesn’t get too down on Frank Murphy for being unable to measure up to Mike Phillips.
Wayne Smith: Gerry touted Wayne Smith, one of the best coachs in the world, as the ideal candidate to take over at Munster, spend two years keeping the ship afloat, then wrap it up and hand it over to Axel. Presumably he could fulfil the same role as a conduit for John Muldoon, another Elwood-esque personification of Connacht rugby. The question of why a massive name would fly 10,000km to be a caretaker was never addressed before, so let’s not address it here.