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.

2012/13 Season Preview: Connacht

Ah, Connacht.  The plucky men from the West.  The dog track.  The lashing rain and howling wind.  Michael Swift.  The defeats plucked from the jaws of victory.  Johnny O’Concrete.  Yes, it’s time to see how Eric Elwood’s mob can do this year.

Last season: their best in some time.  Heineken Cup rugby came to Connacht for the first time, and while the extra workload threatened to derail their season for a while, they came through in the end, securing a famous win and denying Harlequins a place in the last eight as a result.  In the Pro12, they managed a respectable eighth position, securing seven wins.

Players In: Dan Parks (Cardiff), Nathan White (Leinster),Willie Faloon (Ulster), Jason Harris-Wright (Bristol), Danie Poolman (Stormers), Matt Healy, Mata Fafita, JP Cooney, Ultan Dillane and Brian Murphy (AIL level)

Players Out: Ray Ofisa, Henry Fa’afila, Dermot Murphy, Dylan Rogers, Jamie Stephens, Brian Tuohy (all released or retired),Niall O’Connor (Ulster)

This is Eric Elwood’s third season in charge and his first two have been characterised by a completely opposing attitude to that of his predecessor Michael Bradley.  Where Bradley appeared to accept Connacht’s lot as the runt of the Irish litter, Elwood has bolshily demanded they get a better deal.  Where Bradley targeted specific games and threw his hat at others, Elwood has sought to make Connacht compete in every match.  Where Bradley was orange, Elwood is a pasty-faced Irishman if ever there was one.

Connacht fans grew tired of Bradley’s defeatist approach, but it hasn’t all been easy for Elwood either.  Last year they embarked on a mid-season 14-match losing streak, through five Heineken Cup and nine Pro12 matches.  It included losses in Aironi and at home to Treviso.  At the same time, Bradley’s Edinburgh were on their way to the knockout stages of the Heineken Cup, and playing an eye-catching offload-heavy brand of rugger in the process.  Of course, Bradley’s side barely turned up for league games, with the coach’s ‘targeting’ of games reaching new levels of dichotomy.  It did make one wonder if there was something to Bradley’s approach after all.  Connacht’s small squad looked flogged to death by January.

This season, they’ll have another heavy workload to contend with, because them lads from Leinster have once again put them in the Heineken Cup.  The draw’s been kinder this time, pooling Connacht with Zebre, Biarritz and Harlequins.  Three wins is a very realistic target.

Their squad looks better equipped to perform this season.  Last year Connacht had to learn to cope without the loss of their four best players, who decamped to Leinster and Munster, but this year the playing group has been bolstered rather than compromised.  Recruitment has never been Connacht’s strongest suit, but this season’s new arrivals look well thought through and should improve the squad.

Nathan White had a highly productive spell with Leinster, and by all accounts was well regarded within the squad.  He’ll scrummage solidly on the tighthead side of the scrum, and offers a fair bit around the park.  Right now he’s a much better player than Jamie Hagan.  Willie Faloon may never have quite fulfilled his potential at Ulster, but should get a run of games under his belt at Connacht, and we may see the best of him.  He lacks physicality and runs hot and cold, but if he can improve his consistency he could be the new Niall Ronan.

Another shrewd piece of business is bringing young hooker Jason Harris-Wright home from Bristol. The Bray man had some good games at Leinster and a reasonable season in the English Championship.  Stormers winger Danie Poolman is perhaps the highest profile signing they’ve ever made.  He has some Super Rugby experience, and should add a dash of class to Connacht’s back play.  The best of the bunch is getting Dan Parks from Cardiff.  Parks has his critics, but is exactly the sort of high-percentage goal kicker Connacht have lacked.  When a side loses so many tight matches (they won seven losing bonus points last season, the highest number in the league), every fluffed kick counts and Parks should turn a few more clutch situations into wins this year. We suspect he will be brought into the backroom team in some capacity as well – he is intelligent and we think he might buy into Connacht the way Gatty did back in the late 90s – it’s a superb signing in our view.

An intriguing element of the summer’s recruiting is Elwood bolstering the squad with a number of players from AIL level.  Leo Auva’a and especially James Coughlan are two recent success stories in making this transition, and the likes of Galwegians centre Brian Murphy have been brought in to improve the depth chart in positions where it’s needed.  They’re also, presumably, brought in with the British & Irish Cup in mind, in which Connacht are competing for the first time this year.  It should be a good platform for their high-achieving academy players to step up another level.

Of those already there, we’re particular fans of handsome devil Mike McCarthy, Ronan Loughney, Tiernan O’Halloran and Eoin Griffen, while Gavin Duffy remains a fine player.  If there was one position where Connacht laboured badly last year it was scrum half, where neither Paul O’Donohue nor Frank Murphy offer the kind of swift service to reliably launch Connacht’s backs.  What chance Ireland U-20 starlet Kieran Marmion being fast tracked to the first team?

Verdict: So, it’s going to be another tough season for the Westies, but when has it ever not been?  With a kinder draw in Europe, we can see Connacht winning home and away to Zebre and winning one other home game.  Harlequins will know what to expect in Galway this time, but Biarritz have been known to underestimate the smaller teams.

In the league, it’ll be hard to improve on eighth.  Last season the gap between them and seventh placed Cardiff was thirteen points.  A target of ten wins would be something to aim at, and if they managed it, would be a tremendous achievement for Elwood.

You have to ask where Connacht’s ceiling is, and we may get some insight this year. When you have the same attendance for games against Aironi in the league and Quins in the H-Cup, you have to suspect that’s your maximum fanbase. The off-season and HEC draw could not really have gone any better.  If they don’t break the glass ceiling beneath the other three provinces, three Welsh teams and one Scottish team now, they might not be able to do it at all.

Team in Focus: Connacht

Last season: C. They struggled domestically and failed to build on their AmlinVase semi-final from the year before. Then all their decent players left. However, Leinster winning it all meant they got a backdoor ticket to the HEC.

So far this year: Grinding on in the RaboProLeague – 3 wins from 7. They won’t be too pleased given everyone else has been understrength, but at least new players (of which there are many) have had some integration time.

Prospects: As usual, as soon as any Connacht players impressed, they bailed out of there. Sean Cronin, Jamie Hagan and Fionn Carr headed (back) to Leinster, and Ian Keatley went to Munster. Another bunch of surplus to requirement players from the other 3 provinces stepped into their shoes, but another season of embedding guys who will leave at the first opportunity is Connachts’s lot.

The front row will suffer for the loss of 2/3 of its starting contingent. The fantastically-named Rodney Ah You comes in a tight-head, but its more likely to be Rodney Peep Collapsing Yes You against the big sides. Hooker Ethienne Reynecke came from Sarries to replace Cronin, but its fair to say he isn’t top class. Brett Wilkinson is another Saffa, and is a decent honest loose-head who won’t let you down. Stewart Maguire used to be the a big prospect in the Leinster academy – lets hope he fulfils some hype.

Mike McCarthy held his own in the pre-RWC Ireland training camps and is typical of the current generational of Irish second rows (Paulie aside) – hard working but uninspiring. Connacht look to have recruited well in the back-row – TJ Anderson and particularly Eoghan Grace are young men who once had a promising career and have come West to do a Jirry and get regular gametime to step on. Grace was once in the position Peter O’Mahoney finds himself in – that is the young saviour of an ageing Munster back-row. It hasn’t happened so far, but at least now he has a shirt. Johnny O’Connor and John Muldoon are the grizzled veterans here – O’Connor once had words with Egg Chaser’s younger brother on Egg’s stag in his moonlighting bouncer role, and gained kudos for allowing trousers to remain on head.

Paul O’Donohoe never quite made the grade at Leinster – a couple of starts here and there tended to end when established names came back – he’s still young and possesses a snappy pass. He’ll think a few good few years in Connacht will set him up to return home to perhaps take Eoin Reddan’s place in the Leinster squad – he is not to be underestimated. Former Leicester Tiger Frank Murphy will backup O’Donohoe and is an able deputy. The (very) poor mans Morne Steyn, Niall O’Connor, has joined from Ulster. In Matt Williams final year in Ravenhill, O’Connor kept iHumph on the bench, and he offers a towering boot and defensive solidity. In many ways, its exactly what Connacht need – he will kick goals from anywhere inside the opposition half, and keeping the scoreboard ticking over will be a key component in the hanging-in-there gameplan Connacht generally adopt.

The diamond in the backline is young Tiarnan O’Halloran, the star turn in the Connacht academy’s respectable production line of the last year or 2. The lad is only 20, and can play at centre or full-back. If he continues his progression, there is a fair chance he could be the first Connacht player since Eric Elwood to consistently make national squads. He should get plenty of time this year, and expect him to catch the eye. Hopefully players like O’Halloran do not have to leave Galway to make career progress, but the reality is, without regular HEC football, you aren’t getting international recognition.

Relatively familiar names like Gavin Duffy and Mark McCrea are bog standard Rabo backline merchants. Fetu’u Vainikolo at one stage was a peer of Israel Dagg, but concerns about his positioning led to the Highlanders letting him slide, and he has wound up in Connacht – he could be a real danger and is a like-for-like replacement for Carr, albeit with greater Oooooooohhh factor. Kiwi Benson Stanley was at one stage interested in rocking up to Galway, but rumour has it he confused Connacht with Leinster and didn’t sign when he realised the the difference between the RDS and the Sportsground – and we aren’t talking about the availability of butternut squash focaccia and skinny caramel frappaccinos.

Connacht’s inaugural HEC adventure was kind in terms of the bank balance potential of the draw – European big guns Toulouse will bring their unique brand of brilliance to Galway, and will be joined by Conor O’Shea’s Harlequins and the eminently beatable Gloucester. Toulouse in November will be the biggest and most glamourous game in Connacht’s history, and the exposure alone will be worth its weight in gold. At home, Connacht’s small squad tends to mean that, instead of rotation, they target particular games to make best use of resources – this means they tend to mix heroic home victories with pastings on their travels. Its not always pretty, but you can only work with the tools you have

Verdict: Despite the chopping and changing, the summer has been a successful one for Connacht – season ticket sales has rocketed following Heineken Cup qualification, and the feel-good factor around the province is high. The increased exposure and revenue should help bring through more Tiarnan O’Halloran’s, which is realistically the best way forward for the poor relation of Irish rugby. The need for regular HEC rugby is likely to only be fulfilled through the back door, so young talent is the way forward.

On the pitch, we foresee some schizophrenia in the HEC. Connacht have generally been very competitive at home in the AmlinVase, and might target Gloucester, and should come very close to winning that one. Away, it could be painful. Five match points in the pool would represent a major triumph for Elwood.

In the RaboLeague, Connacht are struggling after 7 games in which every other side has been under-strength. Finishing above someone other than Aironi would ensure a good season at home. The chances of getting back to the HEC rest solely on the shoulder of the Leinster squad, but the increased exposure, revenue and investment from this season will mean it is a good season for Connacht no matter what happens on the field.