Sunday 25 March 2018

Six left in the race to replace Elwood at Connacht

Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

AS news filtered through that Connacht's win over Biarritz had caused Serge Blanco to sack his coaching team at the Basque club, the work towards replacing Eric Elwood continued at the Sportsground.

Chief executive Tom Sears is in the midst of the interviewing process and a clear set of six front-runners has emerged from the 40 applications that were received.

Now that the initial shock that Galway resident and former Ireland coach Eddie O'Sullivan has not yet been interviewed despite his obvious attributes has subsided, fans can focus on the men who would be king.

The potential in the province was displayed last Friday night when a young team were too strong for the two-time European finalists.

Shorn of most of their leadership corps, Elwood fielded a team with an average age of 25 and, although the two over-30s Dan Parks and Mike McCarthy played a big role in the win, the youngsters like Eoin McKeon, Kieran Marmion, Dave McSharry and teenager Robbie Henshaw all put in impressive shifts.

Choosing the right man to guide them forward is a crucial decision for a province that is finally being taken seriously. Their performance last Friday can only have helped.

So, who are the sextet of front-runners hoping to replace Elwood?

1 Pat Lam

Capped once by the All Blacks before making the switch to Samoa, for whom he played in three World Cups, the barnstorming back-row was an inspirational figure in his playing days and was part of Northampton's victory over Munster in the 2000 Heineken Cup final.

He moved into coaching on retirement and took charge of Auckland in the NPC before being promoted to the Blues Super Rugby side.

His reign ended badly when he was sacked in July after a disastrous run of form, but he took charge of Samoa during the November tour, overseeing a famous victory over Wales at the Millennium Stadium.

Undoubtedly a fine player, his coaching pedigree is mixed and, if appointed, all of the Irish provinces would be coached by New Zealanders.

2 Sean Holley

The Welshman knows this territory well, having managed the Ospreys for four seasons between 2008-12 – he had been at the region in various capacities since their inception in '03.

He was removed from his position in February after the Neath/Swansea outfit had been dumped out of the Heineken Cup, having guided them to the quarter-finals the previous two years.

His dismissal came despite the Ospreys sitting in second in the Pro12, a competition they would go on and win. He was widely credited with bringing steel to a region that had been known for its prima donnas, signing the likes of Tommy Bowe and establishing a hard edge up front that was on display when his side stunned Leinster at the RDS in the 2009/10 Celtic League final.

3 Dan McFarland

Connacht's current assistant coach was the second man – after Elwood – to reach a century of caps for the province and is a popular figure out west.

Having played for Richmond and Stade Francais, the prop moved to the Sportsground in 2000 and became part of the back-room set-up as Michael Bradley's forwards coach. McFarland was then promoted to assistant coach when Eric Elwood took over.

He has played a big role in Connacht's improvement over the past number of years and has always been a strong, outspoken advocate of the province's virtues.

4 Billy Millard

The former Australia Sevens coach was brought to Galway as backs coach in 2011 and his imprint is all over the side's incisive play behind the scrum this season.

Working with a crop of highly talented backs, Millard – who was at the Cardiff Blues before heading west – has overseen the development of Henshaw, McSharry, Eoin Griffin and Marmion this season. He can take credit for the huge contribution the backs made to the win over Biarritz.

He was a head coach with Sydney University and Melbourne Rebels before they became a fully fledged Super Rugby side and appears to possess plenty of inventive ideas about how the game should be played. Could team up with McFarland, given their prior working relationship.

5 Alex King

A key leader of Warren Gatland's no-nonsense, all-conquering Wasps side alongside Lawrence Dallaglio, Josh Lewsey, Raphael Ibanez, Simon Shaw and Phil Vickery, former fly-half King is building a reputation as backs coach at Clermont, where he finished his playing career.

He replaced Joe Schmidt at the Stade Marcel Michelin and has continued the Leinster man's fine work.

Appointing the Clermont backs coach worked well for Leinster in 2010 and, while it might be a somewhat left-field appointment, the Brighton native appears to have stellar credentials – Wales defence coach Shaun Edwards tipped King to become part of Stuart Lancaster's England set-up earlier this year.

6 Tony Hanks

A former head coach of English Premiership sides Wasps and Sale, Hanks was sacked by the Sharks last March.

The New Zealander served as part of Gatland's regime at Wasps and returned to the club after they had hit harder times in 2009 after a spell in charge of Waikato in the NPC. He was dismissed in 2011 and took over at Sale for a short period.

His previous clubs appear to have been in some level of difficulty before he arrived, and he would look for a clean slate at Connacht.

Irish Independent

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