Elwood feeling the strain as Connacht bid to end drought
ERIC ELWOOD'S Connacht are approaching breaking point.
New year, same old story. It is 11 straight defeats now and the end is nowhere near nigh.
The Heineken Cup champions await on New Year's Day in Galway. Then, the best team in England. Then, the best team in France. The only relief can be attained with a win. But wins are harder to come by with each passing week.
Two weeks ago, they scared the life out of Gloucester in Kingsholm but a good performance was undone by an individual error four minutes from salvation. A week later, Connacht sensed opportunity against a weakened Munster; their performances, individually and collectively, dipped alarmingly.
Gloucester, meanwhile, thumped Wasps 49-10. Bryan Redpath probably sent Elwood a Christmas card. Connacht are now a tonic for other teams' crises while their own becomes more intractable.
Elwood is in the firing line. Steadying the ship after Michael Bradley's departure, his side no longer get hosed -- last season they shipped 40 points or more in eight matches -- and they feign attractiveness.
But ultimately, they have become recurrent losers. And all the while, Bradley flirts with Heineken Cup qualification in his new posting at Edinburgh.
The pressure must be telling, but the man who lives and breathes Connacht rugby insists: "That's what I get paid for and that's what I have to do."
"I am fortunate I have good people around me -- we value people's opinion on the coaching staff and we are very positive. It is difficult, yeah, there is no doubt.
"Being the head coach, it is my name that is out there and it is my ass there to be kicked, but that is what I signed up for.
"It's tough coming into work sometimes, but that's the nature of the business we are in. I have good people around me and guys are willing to work hard. If you are willing to work hard and you persevere, hopefully it will turn around.
"It is difficult at times, I'd be telling you a lie if it was otherwise, but I try to stay positive in it and try to get the best out of everybody around me."
Elwood's frustrations are being keenly felt by supporters. The Sportsground is virtually sold out for tomorrow's game, but that is more due to the festive derby nature of this fixture than anything else; a better gauge was that inaugural Heineken Cup attendances almost halved between round one and round three.
With the IRFU's player succession policy still heating debate, Connacht remained marooned outside the discussion, despite the province's desperate need to deploy young, under-utilised Irish talent, particularly at the expense of a sprinkling of dubious foreign imports.
That is for the IRFU's brains trust to deliberate upon, not to mention those in charge of Connacht recruitment; for now, Elwood can only play the hand he's been dealt.
"You will always have a couple of individuals that shine but for us to get the result, we need everybody to be at their best because we are not going to win these games otherwise," he says.
"Even though some of the lads were brilliant against Munster, that complete package needs to be there for us to win these games."
Mick Kearney earns his first competitive start for the province at blind-side flanker, replacing Dave Gannon, who came off with a knee injury in Monday's 24-9 Thomond Park defeat to Munster.
The 20-year-old academy forward -- a towering 6' 5" presence -- is a former Mount Temple Comprehensive pupil and has represented Ireland U-18, U-20 and Irish Colleges. He earned his first cap for Connacht against the Ospreys this season and has appeared five times since then.
The other change in the pack sees Adrian Flavin replace Ethienne Reynecke at hooker. With over 117 caps, Flavin is one of Connacht's most experienced players and even allowing for Kearney's youth, the pack boasts 765 caps between them.
There are three changes to the backline. Frank Murphy makes way for Paul O'Donohoe at scrum-half, albeit Niall O'Connor is arguably lucky to retain his place outside him.
On the wing Brian Tuohy replaces Fetu'u Vainikolo, guilty of an appalling defensive lapse last Monday, and Connacht's newest signing Kyle Tonetti comes in for Dave McSharry, who required stitches to his chin during the Munster clash.
For Leinster, Isa Nacewa starts at full-back in a side which shows a number of changes from the one which started the 42-13 victory over Ulster on St Stephen's Day.
Andrew Conway, who successfully came through his first appearance this season on Monday, starts on the left wing, with David Kearney on the right wing. Brendan Macken partners Eoin O'Malley at centre, with Isaac Boss linking up with Ian Madigan at half-back.
Captain Leo Cullen partners Damien Browne in the second-row, with ex-Connacht player Jamie Hagan joining fellow Academy graduate Jack McGrath in the front-row alongside Richardt Strauss, who made his 50th Leinster appearance against Ulster.
Final decisions on the back-row, replacement back-row and in the replacement outside-back slots will be made closer to kick-off.
Connacht -- G Duffy (capt); B Tuohy, E Griffin, K Tonetti, T O'Halloran; N O'Connor, P O'Donohoe; B Wilkinson, A Flavin, R Loughney; G Naoupu, M McCarthy; M Kearney, J O'Connor, J Muldoon. Reps: E Reynecke, D Buckley, D Rogers, E McKeon, TJ Anderson, F Murphy, M Jarvis, H Fa'afili.
Leinster -- I Nacewa; D Kearney, E O'Malley, B Macken, A Conway; I Madigan, I Boss; J McGrath, R Strauss, J Hagan; L Cullen (capt), D Browne; R Ruddock, K McLaughlin/S Jennings, L Auva'a. Reps: S Cronin, H van der Merwe, N White, D Toner, S Jennings/J Murphy, J Cooney, N Reid/F Carr, L Fitzgerald.
Ref -- J Lacey (IRFU).
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