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Connacht gain foothold but task remains precarious

The westerners have made huge strides but so have their main rivals, says Jim Glennon

I've never met Tom Sears, Connacht Rugby's CEO, but he appears to be a thoroughly capable professional, and a decent man too. On that basis, one has to take his stance last week on the latest perceived tensions with their provincial neighbours as, simply put, a professional doing the job he's being paid to do, and doing so to the best of his ability.

Likewise Joe Schmidt and his response, although it was interesting that it was left to him as coach to respond on Leinster's behalf. While I'm at it, the same must be said too of the man at the eye of the storm, Mike McCarthy, who, like the good pro he is, kept the head down and said nothing.

Professionalism has transformed the culture of the game right across the globe, not least in Ireland. One thing which hasn't changed, and which is unlikely to ever change, is the volume of traffic in both directions across the Shannon as players pursue provincial recognition and career advancement. It has been a mutually beneficial feature of the Irish game since Connacht began competing as a province, and thus it shall remain, despite occasions such as last week when one side understandably feels aggrieved.

The distinguishing feature of this particular transaction is the media glare in which it took place – McCarthy is 'box-office' and is the highest profile player to have made the move since Victor Costello in 1995. In previous times, such moves barely caused a ripple; indeed some in Connacht will recall a minimum of media interest when no fewer than six Connacht squad members 'went east' at the same time as Costello. As Leinster head coach at the time, I was centrally involved, a fact of which my western friends still remind me, constantly. My response too has remained constant – all of the seven were Leinster resident; most, if not all, were Leinster-born and were products of the Leinster system; and, to a man, all had decided that the move was the right one for them.

Mike McCarthy, while without Leinster links, has made his decision for the same reasons and, dare I suggest, Tom Sears himself would make precisely the same decision in the unlikely event of Leinster's CEO position becoming vacant tomorrow.

It's a pity that all of this went on in a week when Connacht should have been enjoying the massive feelgood factor arising from one of their greatest results. Having endured the particular pain of defeat there, I appreciated the discomfort evident in the body language of Serge Blanco as he watched his team being hounded around the Sportsground in the course of taking a comprehensive beating – at least the Frenchman was spared the embarrassment of having several former Connacht players in his team.

That Connacht didn't manage to repeat the dose in atrocious conditions in Biarritz on Friday night shouldn't in any way take from the advances made in circumstances that can only be described as adverse by Eric Elwood during his tenure as head coach. As the former international outhalf prepares to take his leave of the dressing room he has graced for almost a quarter of a century, he can be proud of his legacy – Connacht rugby is in its best ever shape.

Regrettably, that of itself is insufficient. Rapid strides are being made by their competitors too, and they still have some distance to travel before they achieve a consistent level of performance commensurate with a regular mid-table league position.

Any analysis of the squad has to begin with McCarthy, whose performances over the past 12 months have been monumental, and have contributed more than any other's to the firm platform on which his colleagues have flourished. Mike Swift has been a more than adequate second-row partner and with back-rowers Willie Faloon, Johnny O'Connor, John Muldoon, and George Naoupu they have combined to provide a unit of remarkable resilience and work rate – an environment in which youngsters like 21-year-old No 8 Eoin McKeown and 20-year-old scrumhalf Kieran Marmion revel as the former, in particular, showed in France.

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Behind them, outhalf Dan Parks has been an outstanding acquisition, not only for his place-kicking but especially for the 'godfather' role he performs for a talented but inexperienced backline. The advances made since Parks' arrival by 19-year-old full-back Robbie Henshaw has been a real bonus for Elwood, as is the continued development of 21-year-old wing Tiernan O'Halloran and 22-year-old centre David McSharry. An abundance of young talent therefore, and guided by an impressive group of senior pros.

However, statistics don't lie. And while Parks may be near the top of the European competition's scorers' charts, it's the only table the province is at the top in.

A probable three from six in Europe is a decent return, and a packed Sportsground has again proven to be a graveyard for high-flying visitors. But qualification for the knockout stages, even if achieved, would only paper over the cracks: the simple fact is that the league is Connacht's bread and butter and, once again, they're not delivering. Big European heads on plates in front of full houses are great fun and work wonders for the game's profile in the province, but they're once-off sideshows of a circus which might never be back in town, especially if Monsieur Blanco and his English co-conspirators get their way.

League games against the likes of Zebre, Benetton Treviso, Newport-Gwent Dragons and Cardiff Blues are Connacht's universe for now, a universe in which they must achieve mastery as it's against that which they'll be measured.

The loss of McCarthy will be a serious blow, but he is replaceable. Of much greater importance however to the province, and to Irish rugby in general, is the challenge of finding the best possible replacement for Elwood and, as last week's events showed, the sooner the better too.


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