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.

Eight Games That Defined Irish Rugby: Match Four

The Game: Ireland 14-10 Georgia, 15 September 2007

What it Defined: the decline of the Eddie O’Sullivan era and the 2007 World Cup catastrophe

The State of Play

Ireland are travelling to the world cup in rude health, with a fully fit squad and sky-high expectations.  In short, Irish rugby has never had it so good.  The team is settled and the age profile of the team is optimal, with all its key leaders in the 25-29 bracket.  They have played a lot of very good rugby over the previous twelve months.  In the November internationals they reach new peaks, comfortably beating South Africa and Australia and thrashing the Pacific Islands.  The Six Nations is thrilling, heartbreaking, but ultimately encouraging.  Ireland lose it on points difference to France, but most commentators agree Ireland are the best team in Europe.

Huge credit is given to (and lapped up by) their one-man-band of a coach, Eddie O’Sullivan.  Uninterested in delegating and something of a control freak, he has full control of all elements of the team.  Perhaps his greatest accomplishment is the conditioning of the players, which has seen Ireland shed its long-held reputation as a 60-minute team.  Much is made of their visits to the cryotherapy chambers in Spala, Poland, where the players sit in sub-sub-zero temperatures for short periods of time, which improves the recovery speed of the muscles.  When a bunch of photographs of the players messing on the beach goes viral, the nation marvels at these specimens; tanned and toned, muscles rippling.  To reflect the coach’s achievements he is handed a four-year contract before the World Cup has even begun.

But there are a couple of problems looming, though nobody is overly concerned yet.  After the Six Nations, both Munster and Leinster limp out of the Heineken Cup in the quarter finals.  It means it’s a long time without high-intensity matches.  The summer tour to Argentina sees Ireland lose twice, and draws clear lines of demarcation between the first XV, “Eddie’s Untouchables”, who don’t travel and the rest of the squad, the tackle-bag holders, who do. The tour was ominous – granted, the first XV weren’t there, but the ease with which Argentina dispatched Ireland was a worry.

And Ireland’s pre-tournament preparation did not go well.  They’ve played poorly, losing to Scotland and only beating Italy in Ravenhill thanks to a highly dubious last-minute try.  The idea of playing a club side, Bayonne, once in camp in France, backfires, with the locals delighting in the role of hired hands set out to soften the opposition up for the main fight with France.  O’Driscoll is punched off the ball and leaves the match with a fractured cheekbone.  Eddie’s squad is rather lopsided, with a wealth of blindsides, but no specialised cover at 7 or 8.

The first game of the tournament sees Ireland play badly against Namibia, the tournament’s lowest ranked side. Eddie picked his Untouchables, with a view to playing them into form – they win 32-17, but it’s an inauspicious start – France and Argentina would put 150 points on the Namibians collectively, yet Ireland actually lost the second half 14-12.

Now the alarm bells were ringing – it was Georgia next, and any opportunity to play some of the dirt-trackers was gone as the imperative was to get the first XV back to life. This was the last opportunity before the real games come, against hosts France, and a fired-up Argentina side which has blown the tournament open by beating France in the opening game.

The Game

The first half is a pedestrian affair.  Ireland get a try, through Rory Best, but David Wallace is sent to the sin-bin and Georgia score the resulting penalty to trail 7-3 at half-time.  Then things go pear-shaped.  Peter Stringer throws a floaty pass towards O’Driscoll, and it’s intercepted for a try.  The body language between O’Driscoll and Stringer as the try is scored is not indicative of a team which is enjoying its rugby.  Girvan Dempsey replies with a try in the corner, which Ronan O’Gara converts to give Ireland a 14-10 lead.  But they cannot put the Georgians away, and as the game enters the last ten minutes it is the minnows who are piling on the pressure.  Winning the physical battle, they pick, drive and maul their way towards the line.  Indeed, they get over the whitewash, but Denis Leamy’s body is under the ball, and Ireland breathe again.

Ireland win 14-10, but it is the closest any established nation has come to such humiliation – had the Georgians showed a bit more poise and not attempted a swathe of miracle drop goals in the second half, the victory was there for the taking.  Ireland’s form is now beyond crisis point.  They have also failed to secure a bonus point, meaning if they lose to France and beat Argentina they could still go out.  The tournament is shaping up to be a disaster – Ireland appear poorly conditioned (but how, when they looked so good?) and Eddie has been forced to stick rigidly to his first team in an effort to play them in to something approaching form, but it hasn’t happened.

This half of WoC (Palla) remembers watching the game through his fingers.  With flights booked to Paris for the following week, it simply didn’t bear thinking about that the long awaited trip could be to see two dead rubbers in the French capital.

The Aftermath

The rest of the World Cup panned out with the inevitability of an unfolding horror story.  Ireland did up their game to an extent against France, but ran out 25-3 losers, two classic poacher’s tries by – who else? – Vincent Clerc enabling the hosts to pull away on the scoreboard.  It left Ireland needing not only to beat Argentina, but win by more than seven and score four tries in the process.  It never looked like happening, and Argentina dominated the match, winning 30-15.  In the first half, when David Wallace, of all people, was gang tackled and driven back 20 metres, it was clear the jig was up.  Juan Martin Hernandez was the game’s dominant figure, dropping three goals with all the fuss of someone buying a pint of milk.

Ireland went home humiliated, having entered the tournament as one of the favourites.  It was an astonishing fall from grace.  What had gone wrong?  Any number of theories were put forward, with the rumour mill going into overdrive.  Ronan O’Gara – having played with all the conviction of a man struggling to remember if he’d left the iron on at home – was having personal problems.  Geordan Murphy had packed his bags after being dropped from the bench for the French game.  Brian O’Driscoll and Peter Stringer had come to blows after the Georgia game.  It went on and on, and was very ugly – the intrusion into certain players lives was completely unnecessary, and quite shocking.

Other reasons with more foundation were offered up.  What was clear was that the players were poorly conditioned for test rugby.  Sure, they looked great on the beach, but they weren’t battle hardened.  The preparation was flawed, and once the team started underperforming, Eddie was unwilling to change the team – save for Peter Stringer, who became something of a fall guy.  The players were miserable in a poor choice of hotel in Bordeaux and became bored and irritable.

Frankie Sheahan offered an interesting nugget in a recent Sunday Times article: he felt the coaches had become too concerned with player statistics.  Certain players were being absolved from blame for particular outcomes because they had hit so many rucks, or made so many tackles.  He felt it contributed to an ‘I’m alright, Jack’ mentality within the squad.  When he talked to Rodrigo Roncero at the post-match dinner, Frankie asked him if the Argentina camp had relied on individual performance statistics.  ‘No’, Rodrigo replied, ‘we don’t care how many tackles a player makes, whether it’s 1 or 100, so long as somebody makes the tackle when it has to be made’.  It spoke of a coach whose philosophy had reached its sell-by date.

The strangest thing was that when the players returned to their provinces, the majority found their form again quickly.  Ronan O’Gara went back to Munster and immediately played as well as he had ever done.  Indeed, he piloted them to the Heineken Cup that year, while Leinster won the Magners League.  The players themselves were at a loss to explain it all.  Shane Horgan recently recalled irate fans demanding answers as to why they had been so poor, and his thoughts were: ‘You want answers?  I’m the one who wants answers!’

Eddie had one more Six Nations to put things right, but by now he was a busted flush.  He belatedly and reluctantly let a bang-in-form Jamie Heaslip have a game, and was rewarded with a performance (but no victory) in Paris, but the final two games saw Ireland lose at home to Wales and get thrashed by a Danny Cipriani-inspired England.

Eddie did the decent thing and resigned, leaving the team at a pretty low ebb.  There was only one choice of replacement: the man who had led Munster to two Heineken Cups in three years, and a coach his polar opposite in almost every way: Declan Kidney. The players were crying out for a new approach, and they were going to get one.

Eight Games That Defined Irish Rugby: Match Three

The Game: England 13 Ireland 19, 6th March 2004

What it Defined: The emergence of a consistently successful Ireland side

The State of Play

After the Night of the Long Knives following the All Blacks defeat in 2001, Eddie was always going to get some time to get things right – and he needed it. In the 2002 Six Nations, Ireland mixed the sublime with the ridiculous – veering from feeding Wales a painful 50-burger to being on the end of two shellackings in Twickers and Paris.  The inconsistency that had been Gatty’s downfall wasn’t going to go away quickly.

Next season, it looked like they had begun to sort themselves out. After being unable to beat Scotland for a decade, suddenly Ireland were finding it very easy – a 3rd win in 4 years got them off to a great start, and it was followed up by a routine win in Rome. The character of the next two wins had the Irish public sensing something different – a tough grinding win over France in Lansdowne Road was followed up with a last gasp one point win in Cardiff (shurely shome mishtake Mish Moneypenny). The mental toughness we had been looking for seemed within reach … as did a Grand Slam as England came to town.

Until, of course, it was slapped down in spectacular fashion by Johnno and co. at Lansdowne Road. The game will be remembered for the English captain’s perceived snub of Mary McAleese, but that preceded a right beating from the English, who were thoroughly sick of being denied Grand Slams by Celtic upstarts. A 5-try 42-6 demolishing was the result, but Ireland were quietly pleased with progress, and this was one hell of an England side.

The World Cup in Oz that autumn was about one thing in the minds of the Irish rugby public – atonement for Lens. Ireland had been drawn with Argentina again, as well as the hosts, and someone was going to bite the bullet. In the event, Ireland staggered past an obdurate Pumas side in a stinking game – Quinny’s try-scoring injury put him out for a long time, and both Argentinian props were accused of gouging in the aftermath.

The newly carefree Irish almost caught the Wallabies napping in the final pool game, but a last minute Humph drop goal sailing left meant it was the French instead of the Scots, and after 30 minutes Ireland were whacked and bagged at 24-0 down, eventually losing 43-21 – a defeat which prompted the retirement of all-time legend Woody.  It was about par for Ireland World Cups, but the players had a ball in a terrific base.  Shane Horgan rated it as a career highlight, but lamented that it came a year too soon for what was a young team.

The following years’ Six Nations started with defeat to France, but that was followed up by another handsome victory over Wales. Despite the loss of Wood, the trip to Twickenham was crucial for Ireland – another defeat and they were essentially back where they were after 2000 – some pretty wins, but no cigars.

England themselves were reigning world champions and at the peak of their powers – they had scored 11 tries against the concession of one in their first two games – we tend to associate the 2004 England side with their shambolic 2006-10 cousins, not the powerful machine which won a series in New Zealand and the World Cup in the nine months preceding this game – make no mistake, this was a formidable team, one of the best (if not the best) of the professional era.

The Game

This was the first Great Eddie Performance – a ruthless and well-executed devastation of the opposition’s weak point: the lineout. Thommo had the worst day of his career, and Mal O’Kelly the best, in tandem with the incredible Paul O’Connell. The English set pieces never got going, and Ireland kept them under incredible pressure throughout the first half. Despite an opportunist try from Matt Dawson, Ireland went in 12-10 in front thanks to four Ronan O’Gara penalties.

England came out flying after the break, with a Ben Cohen try in the corner ruled out by the TMO for a double movement. It was a tight call, but probably correct.  Ireland responded with one of the memorable moments of the last decade, and another Eddie Classic – an all-singing backline move started by a sublime step-and-go from Gordon D’arcy – suddenly playing to his great potential – and finished by Girvan Dempsey. Every step was training ground rehearsed.  Egg can recall the dirty Vinnie Jones-esque tackle on Dempsey by Cohen as much as the try itself, but it was beautiful to behold (although look how deep the whole line stands!).

Ireland closed it out after that with the sort of tough hard-nosed performance they needed to produce – it was a display full of grit, desire and marked confidence in their gameplan. Gordon D’Arcy and Paul O’Connell were excellent in their first games in Twickers and would be mainstays of the team for years to come. The England team they beat were missing Johnson and Wilko, but had a plethora of World Cup winners, and were led by Lawrence Dallaglio.

The teams that day were:

England: Balshaw; Lewsey, Robinson, Greenwood, Cohen; Grayson, Dawson; Woodman, Thompson, Vickery; Borthwick, Kay; Worsley, Hill, Dallaglio.

Ireland: Dempsey; Horgan, O’Driscoll, D’Arcy, Howe; O’Gara, Stringer; Corrigan, Byrne, Hayes; O’Kelly, O’Connell; Easterby, Gleeson, Foley.

The Aftermath

The game was the catalyst for Ireland to win three Triple Crowns in four seasons – their most consistent period of success in history. The first was secured three weeks later at home to Scotland and prompted wild celebrations. The team of 2004 was largely the team that played for this entire World Cup cycle and through to France 2007, missing only the silky-haired Jirry Flannery – at that point just back in Munster after a sojourn in Connacht – and the soon-to-re-emerge David Wallace.

The following season, it was Wales’ turn, and they won a rather fortuitous Grand Slam, but this was the catalyst for Eddie’s best years – a Triple Crown followed in 2006 (as did a horror beating in Paris – something which was becoming a familiar marker), and that Autumn, Ireland beat both South Africa and Australia, and reached the heady heights of 3rd in the world rankings.  The South Africa and Australia teams were somewhat developmental in nature, but that was lost on a public giddy with excitement over Ireland’s form.  Ronan O’Gara surely never played flatter than in that series, and two new stars from Ulster emerged: powerful winger Andrew Trimble and wrecking-ball blindside, Neil Best.

The peak of the side was due to be in 2007, and it corresponded with the knocking down of decrepit old Lansdowne Road in favour of the sparkling new Palindrome – Ireland were to play their home game from 2007-2010 in Croke Park, the 80,000 seater occasionally atmospheric home of the GAA. The emotion and unfamiliarity of it all were undoubtedly contributors to a slightly off-key performance in the first game of the series, against France. Ireland were but a lucky bounce away from a home win that would likely have led to a Grand Slam.  As a fan, there are some defeats you never quite get over, and for Palla Ovale this is one – he simply sat, motionless in Croke Park with his head in his scarf for an extended period of time, before going straight home to bed.

The team were more proactive however – they were primed against England in their next home game. The emotional peak and nationalistic fervour conspired to inspire Ireland to their most complete performance to date – a 43-13 pummeling of a shell-shocked England. The momentum took them to a 50 point win in Rome, which would surely have been good enough for the Championship had France played Scotland simultaneously. In the event, it was another Triple Crown, and this one was greeted rather less positively than the previous two – it was, quite rightly, perceived as a chance of a lifetime having been missed, and Ireland felt short-changed.  They hadn’t climbed their mountain yet, but the mentality was one of winners.  A Triple Crown was no longer good enough.

After the physical and mental peaks of the Six Nations, surely Ireland would be firing on all cylinders again for the World Cup in October?

Rugby World Cup: Irelandwatch Episode 1

Over the next few weeks we’ll be keeping a close watch on goings on in the Ireland camp.  This week brought the news that Kidney and his management team (bar Gaffney, who is going home to Australia after the RWC) have been rewarded with a new two-year contract on the eve of the World Cup.  We can’t help but be reminded of the similar decision in 2007 when Eddie was given a four-year deal, only for a disastrous tournament and subsequent Six Nations to beset the team.  So, we are down from four years to two – is this a case of learning by degrees for the IRFU?

In a sense, they are damned if they do and damned if they don’t.  Give the contract, and we are all wincing as we recall Eddie’s Four More Years.  Don’t give it, and the question of the coaching team’s futures will follow them around the tournament.  But casting a glance around the other World Cup hopefuls, it does look as though discretion is considered the better part of valour: of the teams with ambitions of lifting the Webb Ellis Cup (which we claim to have) none of South Africa, France, England or New Zealand have offered their coach a contract beyond the World Cup – only Australia have made the commitment.

One comment from IRFU chief exec Philip Browne did cause us concern: he cited the ‘significant progress in the last two years in terms of results’.  Come again?  Ireland have won three from five in those two distinctly mediocre Six Nations chamionships and two from four in the November Internationals.  Pull the other one – our standards are much higher now – with four 6N wins and a big Southern Hemisphere scalp a minimum requirement.

What’s most worrying is the fear that the 2007 parallels could start to stack up over the coming weeks.  There’s more than a touch of Eddie about Deccie’s idiosyncratic team selections and excessive loyalty to certain players, as well as his lack of enthusiasm for using his bench.  Throw in a more than likely lopsided squad without a single openside and you might think Eddie was still there, pulling the strings behind the scenes.

But these fears need to be counter-balanced by the fact that Deccie’s management style couldn’t be more different to Eddie’s.  He’ll empower the players rather than dictate and, crucially, he looks set to get the physical side of preparation right.  Ireland were woefully underooked in 2007, but with five games in August, four against test level opponents, there is no chance of that this time around.  He’ll have them almost feral by the time we take the pitch against Australia in Auckland.  Let’s try to keep the faith for now.