Thursday 19 October 2017

Elwood looking for Connacht to leave mark on European Cup bow

David Kelly

David Kelly

It is at once a destination and the beginning of a journey.

Connacht and the Heineken Cup. The stuff of which dreams are made.

Eric Elwood, a figure who perhaps more than any other personifies Connacht rugby, positively foams at the mouth at the prospect. And not because there's a crate of unopened Heineken bottles spread out before him.

"It's a massive opportunity on the field and off the field," says the coach, whose side kick off the 17th European Cup on Friday week away to English Premiership pacesetters Harlequins.

"As a coach, you want to compete against the best and this is the biggest club competition in Europe. We're chuffed. It's a huge challenge, but it's where we want to be."

Connacht -- no longer a wasteland; now a land of opportunity. For eons, few players wanted to go there -- least of all Irish players.

Imperceptibly, that attitude changed but, once professionalism dawned in 1995, not quickly enough to alter Connacht's status as the fourth, neglected field.

Of course, they were always thus, belittled and patronised by the rugby hierarchy, Irish supporters and the media. Despite the fact that they will play their 100th European game this month, Connacht -- the Heineken Cup's 60th competitor -- have been the sweep of an accountant's pen away from extinction twice in the last decade.

Ostensibly only in the competition this year thanks to Leinster's Cardiff success augmenting the Irish contingent to a full house for the first time, Connacht nevertheless intend to do more than merely make up the numbers.

"I'm not going to say we've any huge expectations, in terms of doing this or that," says Elwood, into his second full season as coach. "It's important that we're competitive in what are going to be tough games."

Fifteen years ago, Elwood played in his province's first European Conference game, against Padova, at the Sportsground. The weather, as is habitual, offered wet and windy as its staple. Elwood, as was also habitual, kicked points for fun.

Those of us who recall Elwood dropping into the now sadly extinct Dockers' pub in those days -- he used to work as a drinks rep -- a decent punt across the Liffey from yesterday's launch HQ, the visually offensive Celtic Tiger relic that is Dublin's Convention Centre, can only marvel at how man and team have survived to witness their emergence into the biggest club competition in world rugby.

Ambition

"Listen, it's a proud moment for me," says Elwood. "I took this job because I wanted to make a change. In my days, we had mediocrity on and off the park and I wanted to challenge those running Connacht rugby to show ambition. I'm trying to push the boat.

"The IRFU and Connacht have supported that. We've tried to raise the bar even further. That we're here is great, but we have to build on that too. I've always had faith in the maxim that you can achieve in something if you believe in it.

"But along the way we needed to confront facts. The brutal facts of facilities, crowds, budgets. But if you put your mind to it, you can do anything. They're small steps and we're raising the bar."

You sense Elwood would trade any of his 35 Irish caps or his Irish U-20 Grand Slam coaching achievement for the opportunity to earn a 169th Connacht cap at the Stoop on Friday week, or the mighty Toulouse a week later. Well, almost ...

"Of course I'm envious! I was fortunate enough that I played international rugby, so I played in the big arenas. To play at this level, I played for 20-odd years and now I'm coaching, but I would love to be on the park in front of a full house in the biggest club competition.

"We've had the All Blacks and we have had Australia, but to be playing against the quality of that team in the best competition in the world would have been terrific. Unfortunately, I can't play forever but at least I'll have the buzz of coaching from the sideline.

"For us, Toulouse are the Manchester United of the ERC and Guy Noves is the Alex Ferguson. The boys we'll be playing against are some of the best players in Europe. It's like the old FA Cup when you got Crawley Town against Man U. No one expects you to beat Toulouse, but that's the challenge and sport can be unpredictable. We'll relish that challenge."

One can almost imagine Maxime Medard running his hands through his perfectly coiffured mane as he crosses the dog track in two weeks' time, with the wind and rain chasing him from the Atlantic, and wondering aloud, "Mon Dieu".

"It is a strength," says Portumna and Ireland's John Muldoon of Europe's western-most venue, augmented this year by new stands, including 'The Clan', but still homely for all that.

"I'm not going to say we love the wind and rain, that's just stupid. It's as hard for us to play in the wind and the rain as it is for anyone else. To say we're out with branches of trees wishing for rain is stupid.

"We've gone well past that and moved on from just kicking the ball up in the air and chasing it like madmen. I'd say Toulon when they came two years ago and were walking across the dog track, they didn't know what to expect and it will be the same with Toulouse when they come here.

"We're trying to build and yeah, the facilities aren't great but it's our home and we don't want to move out of there. It's what Connacht's about and we'll continue to forge on. I'm sure it will cause a bit of trouble for one or two of the teams and if we can pile more misery on them, we'll certainly try it."

In real terms, they're a decade behind Leinster and Munster. But who can say what the next decade may behold? Nothing is expected of them this season, only to make an imprint.

"We've started something so let's see where it takes us," says Elwood. Try stopping them.

Irish Independent

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