Connacht will cope with exit of star trio, says Elwood
CONNACHT have resigned themselves to the departure of Sean Cronin, Ian Keatley and Fionn Carr at the end of the season with coach Eric Elwood accepting that it is the "nature of the business".
Hooker Cronin was on the fringes of the Munster squad when he moved to Connacht in 2008, playing most of his rugby for Shannon in the All-Ireland League, but the 24-year-old has benefited from regular, first-team rugby, winning seven caps for Ireland and catching the eye with some impressive performances in the November Internationals.
Cronin has been linked with a switch to Leinster, who lost John Fogarty to forced retirement earlier this season, as has Carr, the former Leinster winger who has scored 29 tries in his 59 appearances for Connacht since 2008.
Out-half Keatley has been linked with a move to Munster, who this week confirmed that ex-Connacht player Paul Warwick, the regular back-up No 10 to Ronan O'Gara, will be leaving at the end of the season.
Connacht players and management held a meeting when the impending exodus was brought up and the three players were wished good luck in their future careers.
"In the business we are in players come and go," said Elwood. "We acknowledged it in a meeting with the players and management that the three lads are moving on.
"It is up to everyone to knuckle down. Some other players may come in, some may go. But it is out there now about the three lads moving on at the end of the season and we just need, as a squad, to move on from here.
"They are three good kids and I wish them well and I know they will do their best for Connacht for the remainder of their time here, as they have done since they arrived here a few years ago.
"The three lads have developed since they came here, they have been capped and that's very important as the national side is the flagship and if it is going well then it can only be good for all teams below it."
Coming shortly after the future of Connacht rugby was secured for three years following an extensive review, the loss of these three players -- who epitomised the developmental role the province can play for promising Irish talent -- is a serious blow.
One of the standout features of the review was the commitment by the other provinces to direct players towards Connacht, but the first movement has been in the reverse direction, denying Elwood three key players who he helped to develop in tandem with previous coach Michael Bradley.
The fact that Connacht have never qualified for the Heineken Cup, and are extremely unlikely to do so this season, is unquestionably a factor as players are aware of the need to perform in Europe's premier competition to further their international ambitions.
With a relatively short career span, players cannot be blamed for moving to bigger clubs on higher contracts. Cronin, Keatley and Carr have been key performers for Connacht over the past three seasons -- Keatley racking up 515 points for the province in 62 appearances.
Interest will now focus on the players' replacements -- and whether they will come from the other provinces, as per the review findings, or whether Elwood will be forced to look overseas.
Meanwhile, Munster will be without James Coughlan for their St Stephen's Day clash with Connacht at the Sportsground after the back-row sustained a facial injury in their Heineken Cup defeat to the Ospreys last weekend.
The Dolphin man cracked his jaw in the early stages of the Liberty Stadium encounter but played on until he was replaced by Alan Quinlan. Medical examinations have revealed that the jaw is not broken but Coughlan has broken a bone in his cheek and could be out of action for several weeks.
The dates and times of rounds five and six of the Heineken Cup will be announced this morning with Munster scheduled to travel to Toulon for a must-win Pool 3 encounter on the weekend of January 14/15/16, Ulster at home to last year's beaten finalists Biarritz and Leinster hosting Saracens.