Tuesday 16 January 2018

Elwood must use anger and frustration to lift Connacht

Hugh Farrelly

THE Connacht squad took a trip to the cinema on Tuesday night to take in Brad Pitt's new baseball flick 'Moneyball'.

Based on the true story of the Oakland Athletic's 2002 season, the film chronicles the team's struggles with the lowest salary constraint in the league, a losing streak stemming from having lost three or four key players and Pitt's (playing manager Billy Beane) attempts to turn it around.

If the Connacht players were squirming uncomfortably in their seats or hiding behind their popcorn, they could be forgiven, for this was all a little too close to home. Eric Elwood's side have not tasted victory since September (eight defeats on the bounce), are struggling to replace Fionn Carr, Sean Cronin, Jamie Hagan and Ian Keatley (four front-liners, who left to join other provinces) and continue to be held back by their financial limitations.

As Elwood alluded to again this week, it's all about the money, and Connacht do not have it. Although president Gerry Kelly's meeting with the IRFU this week was part of the regular schedule and not the cap-in-hand emergency exercise it was reported to be, finances remain the overwhelming issue.

Connacht have done tremendous work with the Sportsground and are optimistic of getting between six and seven thousand through the gates for today's Heineken Cup encounter against Gloucester (1.30), but the supporters need something to cheer and the on-pitch results have not been keeping pace with progress off it.

There was positive news this week with the securing of promising centres Dave McSharry and Eoin Griffin for two more years and now Connacht need to build on that nugget of hope with a win, any kind of win.

Elwood's selection carries few surprises, lack of depth always ensures a degree of familiarity, and he will look to an experienced spine to drive this performance. That means Gavin Duffy, Frank Murphy, Brett Wilkinson, Mike McCarthy and John Muldoon calling the shots in their respective areas of influence.

Gloucester are going through their own difficulties, on a run of four losses and one win in seven, while both sides are pursuing their first Heineken Cup win of the campaign. There are some familiar names in the Gloucester line-up, scrum-half Rory Lawson, second-row Jim Hamilton, flanker Brett Deacon and No 8 and captain Luke Narraway have all been around the block.

As has winger James Simpson-Daniel, who forms an extremely threatening back-three alongside Charlie Sharples and full-back Olly Morgan. Sharples, in particular, is a big danger, one of the most exciting runners in the competition and a big test for young Tiernan O'Halloran.

"We are not playing well enough as a group," said Simpson-Daniel. "Losing to Newcastle last weekend was very disappointing. Connacht are going to be very tough, very physical, very nitty-gritty and will be targeting this home match."

All the right noises, but, in truth Gloucester see Connacht as a means of getting their season back on track, fully expecting to open them up in Kingsholm next weekend.

That alone should serve as motivation for a Connacht side desperate to justify their presence in Europe's premier competition. They could also draw inspiration from their cinema trip and the words of Beane who used anger and frustration to oversee a remarkable revival for his side.

"There are rich teams and there are poor teams, then there's 50 feet of crap, and then there's us. You think losing is fun?"

Verdict: Connacht

CONNACHT -- G Duffy (capt); M McCrea, K Tonetti, D McSharry, T O'Halloran; N O'Connor, F Murphy; B Wilkinson, E Reynecke, R Loughney; M McCarthy, G Naoupu; D Gannon, J Muldoon, R Ofisa. Reps: A Flavin, D Buckley, R Ah You, M Kearney, E McKeon, P O'Donohoe, M Jarvis, F Vainikolo.

GLOUCESTER -- O Morgan; C Sharples, H Trinder, E Fuimaono-Sapolu, J Simpson-Daniel; F Burns, R Lawson; N Wood, S Lawson, D Chistolini; P Buxton, J Hamilton; B Deacon, A Hazell, L Narraway (capt). Reps: M Cortese, D Murphy, R Harden, W James, A Qera, N Runciman, T Taylor, J May.

REF -- N Paterson (Scotland).

Connacht v Gloucester,

Live, Sky Sports 1, 1.30

Irish Independent

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