Exit Stage West

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.

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19 Comments

  1. Parks is certainly a shoe in for an eventual coaching position but throwing him straight in at the top wouldn’t be a great idea. Not only that but Connacht will want him concentrating on doing his job on the pitch for two years at least.

    If you want to look at internal picks, McFarland is solid, as is Carolan who guided the U20s to the interpro title last year. With him taking charge of the ‘A’ team this year it’s a great opportunity for him to stake a claim.

  2. Stevo

     /  October 3, 2012

    It has to be Eddie, doesn’t it?

    One of my more excitable friends was adamant after the trouncing of Leinster on Friday evening that Elwood will be Declan Kidney’s replacement next June. Then I heard about Elwood’s decision to step down next summer and the rusty cogs in my head started turning. Could all this talk of the strain of the job be a cover for a masterful move into position by Elwood, a lovely dummy thrown to wrong-foot the media? After all, if the dearth of caps being handed out to players from west of the Shannon is to be reversed, what better way than with Mr Connacht handing them out?

    • I don’t think it has to be Eddie at all.

      Not to say he’d be a bad choice, but it seems to be the default position in Irish minds to immediately bring up Eddie if there is a vacancy. And if we don’t bring it up, Eddie does, durty little attention whore that he is. 🙂

      Apparently he’s the favourite for the job. Doesn’t that strike anyone as being incredibly quick and not a little obvious? As soon as I saw the Independent article stating that this morning my “Lazy Journalist” siren went off. Who made him favourite? The bookies? How much research could they possibly have done in such short notice? Who’s in second place? Or was it the Indo themselves who’ve decided he’s favourite and don’t need to justify it with any evidence?

      Eddie is a possible option, and a reasonable one from a technical point of view, but like Jackman might not be well received after his first stint. Many fans would be against him from the start. (Although a handful of wins would suddenly give everyone amnesia, so it’s not really that big a deal.)

      • SteveO

         /  October 4, 2012

        You’re dead right Ummm, I’m just glad John Kirwan took the Auckland job or we’d be reading about him being sighted around Galway looking for an interview.

  3. Firstly, I’m really disappointed with the news. Lots of Connacht fans have bought into his ethos and his passion. It was a cruel twist that the Advertiser tweeted a trailer for a documentary on last season’s HC last night with China urging his men on to great things.

    Looking at the options you present, the only one I would like to see in the role is Parks. The rest all come with national team baggage, Connacht baggage or their ambitions being clearly elsewhere.

    Also,with all of the names mentioned, their success is not as tightly coupled to Connacht’s success as Eric’s has been. For them, developing players and some decent, if unspectacular, placings would serve their ambitions to bigger things in a couple of years. Could you see any of them staying for 3-4 seasons and pushing the province along. This was also true for Bradley. From a fan’s perspective, this would be a retrograde step. We’ve gotten to a point where we can believe that we’re more than a provincial “A” squad and I’d love to see a new coach holding this line. (Whether the IRFU agree with this is another discussion)

    Agree with ummm, Carolan needs looking at as an internal option. I like McFarland as a forward’s coach but I don’t think I’d like to see him stepping up to coach.

  4. @ummm, @letsbereasonablehere I wonder if one or both of you guys could expand a bit on Carolan and McFarland, and what they might bring to the role. We don’t know a whole heap about them and I suspect many non-Connacht readers may be the same. We’d much appreciate it!

    • McFarland has been a big part of Connacht’s ooomph in the forwards, and worked with Eric on the U20 Grand Slam team. There were many who favoured Dan over Eric for the job the first time around. (But they were probably all disgruntled ex forwards)

      Carolan has been a revelation. Major influence on our upcoming home talent, has brought on the likes of TOH, Griffen, McKeon, Buckley, Browne & Henderson. There were rumours that Leinster were sniffing around for him for their A team. Huge talent and definitely someone we will be looking to hold on to with a view to eventual top spot. Eric might be leaving a little too early, though.

  5. My under-the-radar pick would be John Kingston, head coach at Harlequins. Joined Quins from Galwegians, so he knows the area, the fans and the restrictions.

    • Thanks for that ummm, your efforts will be rewarded with a thirst-quenching beverage should our paths cross.

    • Anonymous

       /  October 3, 2012

      I’m with @ummmrugby on this and Carolan is my choice. His success with the underage sides has been sensational and he’ll continue to bring these players forward now that many of them have broken into the first team. I think McFarland is more suited to his forwards role and although Billy Millards name was mentioned somewhere as well, I don’t believe our backs play has been anywhere near consistent enough to justify his promotion. Carolan on the other hand is a skills man and would be a positive appointment in rugby terms, let’s hope its not a little to early in his career!

  6. thomas

     /  October 3, 2012

    Not that I believe he is a viable replacement, but Girvan Dempsey’s “Elite Player Development Officer” position at Lenister always made me wonder if he had the desire to become a province head coach, or if it was just a life after rugby type job. Makes his commentary during the world cup on itv seem a bit different when I think about it.

    • I wouldn’t be in favour of Girvan or Axel at all. A new Connacht coach will need to come in with a vision for the future of the team and a desire to see that through and I am very wary of coaches who would use Connacht as a work experience post. They can do that where they are.

  7. Just for a laugh, my alternative 7 no particular order.

    John Kingston: Former Galwegians coach, helped O’Shea’s Quins to the AP title in his first season as head coach. His first hand experience of rugby in Connacht means he’d be under no illusions as to how tough the job would be.

    Nigel Carolan: Former Connacht youth coach, now in charge of the ‘A’ team. Developed many of the breakthrough stars on the senior team. Won the U20s interpro last year.

    McFarland: Other half of the Ireland U20 grand slam winning coaching team with Eric Elwood. Current Connacht forwards coach.

    Mike Ruddock: Excellent pedigree, his work with under age sides shows he doesn’t consider less glamourous jobs as below him, so not likely to jump ship if someone else comes along if he’s working towards a goal. Won stuff with Wales.

    Kevin Maggs: Doing well with Mosely, could be very hungry.

    Martin Johnson: Wayne Smith was a silly pick, and this one is mine. But not entirely silly. If I wanted to be crazy I’d say Bradley.

    Eric Elwood: Sir Alex decided against retiring after announcing it early one season, no reason Eric can’t do the same. There’s an aura similar to Kevin Keegan about Elwood. Hero worship and fiery passion for the team. Being “Connacht through and through” might not be a prerequisite for the job, but shouldn’t be underestimated when calculating just how much that attitude has become infectious within the team and has changed the team mentality.

    I wouldn’t go for Eddie, or even Deccie. I want to see a coach with goals, not someone coming to the end of their careers with little to prove or a future plan that involves a different team. And if the provinces are to develop for the national team, that should mean coaches as well.

  8. Anonymous

     /  October 5, 2012

    And what about Brian McLaughlin, Ulster’s coach from last season?
    Heineken Final appearance for his team not count for something?
    Now Academy Schools Coach in the Ulster setup. Prime for the plucking.
    Surprised not to see his name mentioned so far.

    • davidmcaroe@hotmail.com

       /  October 5, 2012

      Doubt McLaughlin wants a job outside Ulster – he moved from the Ulster coaching set up to schools rugby a few years prior to getting the top job when he could have gone elsewhere so I don’t think he is that interested in coaching elsewhere.

      • Yeah, Brian never really crossed our minds, but you’d have to think he’s a contender. Surely he can’t have too much loyalty to Ulster after the way he’s been treated?

  9. Bowe Gathers

     /  October 5, 2012

    This is awesome, on the Connaught theme http://vimeo.com/50654187

  10. zdm

     /  October 5, 2012

    After watching tonights game, I would now be of the opinion that Connacht need a “big name” coach to bring them to the next level – you could see from the reaction of the players and their frustration at their game plan not coming off that it is no longer acceptable to the Connacht players to be the plucky loosers who gave it a lash but got beaten by the “real” teams.
    There has been a growing hunger and there is raw talent out west and I think they need to look to bring in a coach with experience at the business end of a season to take them to the next level.

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