Connacht CEO Tom Sears has a tough job on his hands but he's up for the challenge, says Brendan Fanning
Never mind asking Tom Sears how good he felt last April when, watching from a bar in Nairobi, he saw Leinster drag Connacht, his new employers, into the Heineken Cup for their second season. Rather, try and get a handle on the feelings of the chief executive as this month he witnessed his team blow the chance of a uniquely positive start to a competitive season.
Think what three from three would have added to the momentum generated last term?
In August/September 2011, Eric Elwood's team returned outstanding figures of three wins and two bonus-point defeats. A year on and they are one from four after Friday night's defeat in Glasgow, with home losses to Cardiff and Llanelli driving a screw into the head of their coach. And the chief executive?
"You've got to be realistic," he says, just when you were expecting him to come across all wistful. "Yeah we could have won three from three maybe but you have to look at the competition. Everybody says we've invested heavily in our squad this year and we have -- we've brought in players like Nathan White, Dan Parks, Danie Poolman but everyone else has invested heavily too.
"So we're not even playing catch-up, we're struggling to keep up at the moment. Look at the Scarlets side we played last Saturday -- they could have four or five guys in the British and Irish Lions squad next summer. And we haven't got one current international. So you've got to have an understanding of where you are as an organisation, and be realistic."
Sounds like he won't be putting too much pressure on his coach any time soon. And equally he's insulating himself against any chill that blows west from Lansdowne Road. Sears says he wants to hang around for a good while. He is unique among Irish rugby CEOs in that he actually has a sporting admin background rather than shifting into the game from teaching or business, which has been commonplace since the game went professional.
His voyage to the Sportsground has been scenic, with never more than a few years docked in any port. What started under the Clive Woodward regime in the (English) RFU, extended to PR for Northampton Saints -- he was on the case when they beat Munster in Twickenham in 2000 -- and then cricket jobs with Worcestershire, Derbyshire and New Zealand before fetching up in Africa.
Sears could entertain you with tales from Kenya, where he spent two years trying to revamp their national cricket organisation. The first day on the job saw him arrive into an office where there was neither phones nor computers. And power supply was an issue. The delightful touch to all this was the warm welcome of a lizard perched on his desk.
Dealing with tribal allegiances, players who seemed to be members of the same family but weren't, and who sometimes changed their names, was confusing. Then there was the grim prospect of falling foul of the legal system, or one of its many corrupt officers, and ending up a guest of the nation. And that was if you didn't expire from acute food poisoning. He remembers joking once with a street vendor in Nairobi, who was trying to flog him a mangy animal as a pet, that while he appreciated the offer, he wasn't hungry.
"No, these are not for eating," he was assured. "But I have some others over there that would be better?"
The challenge in the west of Ireland seems more hillock than mountain after what he was climbing in Africa. It's all relative, however. And Connacht, if not quite third world compared to Friday's visitors Leinster, are certainly in a different time zone.
The race to get up to speed started last year with the setting up of the Professional Game Board. Sears now has two years to deliver a return to the IRFU that convinces the parent to go from pocket money to a viable allowance.
He has made a positive impression in his few months in the job by forensically analysing Connacht's income streams and the activities that support them. Everybody in the organisation now is crystal clear about what is required and how they are expected to deliver it.
"With everyone we've got on board and the foundations we've got in place, we can achieve what the IRFU hope us to, and start contributing to the national scheme of things as well," he says. "We want to produce players for Ireland on a regular basis. Again, it's not going to happen overnight but I'm confident it will happen given time."
Not without more cash it won't. The beauty of Sears' background is that he understands the relationship between entertainment and sport. If you're not providing it in the first place you can't play it successfully in the second.
Central to the entertainment package is the venue itself. The Sportsground is gradually morphing into a modern rugby stadium, and maintaining that development will require Sears developing a good relationship with the masters of the running hounds, who own what we used to lovingly refer to as the Dog Track. Being tenants of the Irish Greyhound Board rather than owners of their own patch has always been a big issue in Connacht. In the absence of outright ownership -- which must be a medium- to long-term goal -- a fully functional alliance is vital to development. He is already on the case. "We've a new hospitality facility which we opened last weekend, we're looking at additional seating and we've covered the disabled viewing area to make that a bit more comfortable," Sears says. "But we have limitations here so one of the key things we've got to do is plan, and that's in every aspect of the organisation.
"We need a cohesive strategy to what we're doing with our facilities, our playing squad, through developing our Academy and retaining the players we've got, and through aggressive recruitment of Irish and non-Irish eligible players. We've got to plan far more ahead than we have done in the past."
As well as corporate hospitality, developing online retail business has been the other gaping hole in the revenue stream. Well, that and harnessing the support of official Ireland. Being collected from the Sportsground on the night of the Toulouse game last season, one Connacht man was assured by a delighted taxi driver that it was better than St Stephen's Night.
There is a case to be made to both Galway City Council and Fáilte Ireland that Connacht is a valuable contributor to the local economy, but that it is a two-way street. Sears has already presented to the Council and was enthused by the reaction. Similarly he has recently laid out plans for the IRFU management committee about where the three-year plan is headed, and they didn't beat him out the door.
Among the many relationships he has to manage, keeping the blazers onside in the Connacht Branch and Lansdowne Road are central to his success. And their support will be needed for squad-building.
Having analysed their defeats last season -- six of the 13 losses up to New Year's Day were by a score -- they went out and bought two players who could do something about that: tighthead Nathan White and outhalf Dan Parks. They hope to have Parks fit for Leinster on Friday. The measure of their success will be having the cash flow to go out and do business like that again, except for bigger names.
In the meantime, they are in another dogfight, with Ulster following the week after Leinster, in Ravenhill. There is also B&I business to be conducted, which is a new departure west of the Shannon. The effect of this is that the injury crisis will be a season-long affair rather an intermittent one. Is it not a bit intimidating then?
"I saw an opportunity to be part of something that has great potential, and you don't often get that in sport, a chance to get in at the start and help build something special and that's why I've come here," Sears says. "I could have gone to somewhere like Leinster or Northampton or one of the other big clubs but you'd just be a safe pair of hands. You're just carrying on the good work that's done before. Here there's been tremendous work done to get us to a point where we can really take off. But we have to put in a lot more hard yards to realise that potential, and that's what attracted me here.
"There's tremendous goodwill and tremendous collective desire to carry on the good work and build something special, and I think we can. We may not get it right this week and we may not get it right this season but we will get it right."
Over the first few weeks of the season crowds in the Sportsground are up 10 per cent on last term. A positive experience against the European champions on Friday would nudge those figures up a notch.
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