Battle of underdogs a must-win for Elwood
"We are determined not to become a development region."
THE above quote could have been uttered by any Connacht official in any season over the last number of years, but actually came from Martyn Hazell, chairman of this evening's opponents, the Newport Gwent Dragons, this week.
The poor relations of Welsh rugby are fighting to cling on to their blue-chip Wales international Toby Faletau at the minute, with English and French clubs hovering around the No 8, who is out of contract at the end of the season.
Having already lost Luke Charteris and with Dan Lydiate nearing the exit door, Newport are suffering badly as the Welsh game continues to struggle economically.
When Connacht chief executive Tom Sears greets his opposite number for today's game (5.0), they will share a knowing look.
The westerners are involved in a perennial struggle to retain their position in Irish rugby, to be viewed as an equal among their three heavyweight rivals.
Both of these sides faced provincial derbies over the Christmas period, and both came out with familiar results.
The Dragons ran Cardiff Blues and the Ospreys close, while Connacht should have beaten Munster before putting it up to Leinster and losing out at the RDS, having failed to capitalise on early dominance.
Plus ça change.
Every so often, the positive noises start to emanate from Connacht and the infusion of youthful exuberance this season, coupled with notable wins over Leinster and Biarritz, helped to build a feeling that things were changing.
Then, along comes the hammer blow that Mike McCarthy is moving to Leinster next season to smash that perception.
Having nurtured the English-born Irish international, Connacht now face losing him as he becomes a front-line, top-level player. Once McCarthy began to shine for Connacht, the bigger names from down the road came calling and the player could not resist.
In doing so, he will follow Fionn Carr, Sean Cronin and Jamie Hagan down a familiar path.
There has been little movement the opposite way, certainly not in terms of proven talent – although Dave McSharry has made the most of his opportunities since leaving Leinster's 'sub academy' to travel west, while front-rows Jason Harris-Wright and Nathan White have both played for the eastern province.
The Dragons can empathise. It is a constant battle that these under-resourced clubs are fighting, although they do it from slightly different footings.
Based in the hot-bed of Welsh rugby, the Dragons can rely on a host of young players coming through, but the Valleys remain economically depressed and Rodney Parade remains as it was in the amateur era, rendering their income streams paltry in comparison with the Ospreys, Scarlets and even Cardiff Blues – even if they have left their purpose-built new stadium in the suburbs to return to the old Arms Park.
Connacht are still trying to establish themselves in a part of the world where rugby is a poor relation of Gaelic games and soccer. They capture the imagination on occasion, but making it last proves difficult.
Much has been made of the rise in interest around Galway and the good work being done, but the reality remains that they did not sell out for their win over Biarritz before Christmas – their biggest home game of the season.
The fact that these two teams have much in common is emphasised by their almost identical records this season.
Sitting in 10th and 11th above the winless Italians Zebre, each side has won just three of their 12 games, with Connacht ahead of their Welsh rivals, having picked up two more bonus points. A win is a must tonight for Eric Elwood, who has made minimal changes to his team after their defeat to Leinster.
George Naoupu moves to No 8 from second-row, with Eoin McKeon shifting to openside as McCarthy comes back into the second-row. Tongan international Fetu'u Vainikolo also returns in place of Matt Healy on the wing.
After three defeats in a row following that famous victory over Biarritz, Connacht will be targeting a win over their bed-fellows at the bottom in order to prepare themselves for a daunting trip to the Stoop to take on Harlequins next weekend.
For so much of the season, they fight on an unequal footing, but this evening they find themselves on common ground and need to take advantage.
CONNACHT – R Henshaw; D Poolman, E Griffin, D McSharry, F Vainikolo; D Parks, K Marmion; D Buckley, J Harris-Wright, N White; M Swift, M McCarthy; A Browne, E McKeon, G Naoupu. Reps: E Reynecke, B Wilkinson, R Loughney, M Kearney, E Grace, P O'Donohoe, M Jarvis, T O'Halloran.
DRAGONS – H Amos, T Prydie, A Hughes, A Tuilagi, T Chavhanga, L Robling, W Evans; P Price, S Parry, D Way, A Coombs, R Sidoli, L Evans, N Cudd, T Faletau. Reps: H Gustafson, O Evans, N Buck, A Jones, T Brown, J Evans, A Smith, J Dixon.
REF – A MacMenemy (SRU).