Connacht facing financial crisis
€900,000 shortfall piles pressure on province, writes Brendan Fanning
It was perhaps appropriate that Connacht limped away from their third successive European campaign yesterday at the new, purpose-built €29m-plus home of the biggest spenders in England's Premiership. Saracens, backed by fat wedges of South African rand, are the polar opposite to Ireland's fourth province.
The chill wind that blows through the Connacht camp now exposes them to what will be a €900,000 deficit by the time they get to the end of the financial year.
In this newspaper four months ago we revealed that Connacht had already run up a shortfall of over €400k. It was described by a senior union source at the time as: "The worst thing that could have happened."
In fact, we understand, the situation is worse. It was confirmed at the December meeting of the IRFU committee that between a shortfall in projected income, and an overspend on the professional game, Connacht will be saddled with a €900,000 deficit going into next season. It remains to be seen how this affects their ability to plan and recruit.
The situation was reported back to the Connacht branch last week, along with the message that the IRFU would be taking another look at how Connacht conducts its affairs. While according to one branch man -- "It caused alarm in the room" -- it's unlikely that knives will be sharpened with a view to making Ireland a three-team professional operation below international level, as was feared in 2003 when Connacht mobilised with a march to the IRFU offices in Lansdowne Road to head off the threat of extinction.
It does, however, put increasing pressure on Connacht's Professional Game Board to prove it can carry out the job given to it in December 2010. The setting up of that entity, comprising independents and chaired by Jimmy Staunton rather than committee men, was hailed as a new dawn for the professional game in the west.
The departure of former chief executive Tom Sears, however, who had been unimpressive in the role of branch chief executive, was a huge embarrassment to Connacht, just 15 months after he had been installed. When Sears took up the job he spoke about making this a long-term project and subsequently adopted a high-profile in challenging Joe Schmidt in Leinster over the departure east of Mike McCarthy. When it came to replacing Eric Elwood as coach last year, Sears made it a public spectacle rather than a private mission and ended up with Pat Lam, who effectively was third choice for the job after Sean Holley and Alex King turned it down.
Sears still has not been replaced. In the interim, Kevin Potts, the IRFU's director of corporate affairs, has been spending a couple of days a week at the Sportsground, overseeing the operation on behalf of head office. It was suggested in Galway last week that the PGB would be allowed no input to the process of replacing Sears -- which would have rendered them effectively redundant -- but this may not be the case.
On the field meantime, their stats so far of five wins from 18 games is good by Connacht's standards, facilitated in part by sharing pool space with Zebre, whom they beat three times between Heineken Cup and Pro 12 this season.
The beacon of light is the sequence in mid-autumn that took them from the home leg of yesterday's fixture against Saracens, to the stunning away win over Toulouse. In that seven-game spell Connacht won twice and took four losing bonuses from the five defeats. Oddly enough, the landslide defeat in Edinburgh, which preceded the Toulouse trip, was developing into a very good performance until the aggregate of missed chances tipped them over the edge.
So Pat Lam deserves some credit. He came with a reputation of trying to solve every problem simply by trying harder. All the feedback about him from the Sportsground, however, has been good -- it's not just one long huddle with the passion play turned up full volume. His game plan, however, where kicking is kept to a minimum, is very demanding, and suggested a collision course with the incumbent outhalf, Dan Parks. Sure enough it came with Lam opting for the rookie Jack Carty against Leinster two weeks ago, a gamble that paid off but was not continued yesterday.
The good news for Ireland Inc was that Carty's selection was another local boy playing in a key position, and Lam has been good at giving game time to those who are eligible to wear a different shade of green.
The bad news for the coach, however, is that with no backside in their trousers Connacht will find it very hard to replicate signings like that of Craig Clarke, to provide solid support for that young talent.
The 11 tries conceded to Saracens yesterday was an alarm bell to match the shrill sound coming from the balance sheet. The west is surely awake by now.