Friday 23 February 2018

Elwood keen to make mark on group's marquee names

Accurate and aggressive rugby will define Connacht's season, writes Brendan Fanning

John Muldoon thinks back to the four minutes and 40 seconds of "madness" as he calls it that struck his team in the Sportsground against Cardiff last weekend, and accepts anything similar in the Heineken Cup will involve committal.

We are a week away now from Connacht getting what they wished for, and the IRFU getting what they feared, and for both great care is required.

Did they want to draw Toulouse? Certainly. If there was one tie that would capture Galway and the province it was the prospect of Europe's most successful club coming to the track where not long ago the dogs ran the show.

Either side of that spectacular breakdown which cost Connacht the PRO 12 game against the Welsh, it was easy to visualise what it will be like when Toulouse fetch up in round two. The shed is a real addition to the ground, and the people who were in it that night were as far removed from the Lansdowne Road corporate brigade as Bel Air is from Ballyhaunis. In the World Cup last month we were reminded of how in the southern hemisphere many go to rugby games primarily to eat and drink. Once the initial rumpus dies down a busy calm settles on the stadium as punters shuffle up and down the gangways loading up on beer and hot dogs.

The Connacht mob however provided real support for the team. They will be the lifeblood of resistance when the heavyweights arrive in the competition Connacht have targeted for years.

Equally you could imagine what it will be like on the road, in Kingsholm for example, where Gloucester have their own shed of longer standing and greater renown, when Connacht are under the pump and their resources are sorely stretched. And they will be. In The Stoop where Harlequins are happiest playing a brand of rugby that is easy on the eye and very hard to resist. And in Stade Ernest Wallon, where hiding places are not easy to find.

"Honestly I won't be nervous," Eric Elwood says. "I'm not trying to diminish our goals, or our targets. Like, it's important for us that we're competitive in these games because they are going to be tough games. Harlequins are unbeaten all year; we have Toulouse; Gloucester are going to be a tough proposition as well. It's important for us that we give a good account of ourselves. We firmly believe that we can be competitive at home at the Sportsground because obviously we're going to have full houses and that's going to spur us on. So it's important for us that if we're going to make a statement we're competitive in those six games both home and away."

What he really means is to be competitive at home, maybe turn over Gloucester depending on what their status is by the time they arrive in round three.

"But we'll have pressure from within," he says. "We do have goals we set ourselves, and we have our standards. They're performance goals, because we want to be competitive. We don't want to go through the group saying 'ah well done, pat on the back aren't ye great lads'. We want to be taken seriously and the only way to be taken seriously is to get wins. We'll ultimately be judged on wins. Obviously our best opportunity people would say is in the Sportsground so it's important that we capitalise on that.

"It's unique in its own way -- we don't go out there lads looking for wind and rain. We don't control the weather but when it's there we use it to our advantage because it can be inhospitable, there's no protection from the elements as such. So yes we try and use it to our advantage. That's what all teams try and do -- Gloucester have the Shed but we are looking to change it -- in the professional era we're under no illusions, you've got to upgrade your facilities and obviously if we're looking to entice players to come and play for us we have to win matches and give them an opportunity to play in front of good crowds."

Elwood is a bit tired of defending the idea of every man, woman and child west of the Shannon dropping to their knees on match day and imploring the Almighty to send wind and rain. Indeed he points out that nice nights in Ravenhill are like tax rebates -- seldom and wonderful.

His dream is for a Connacht side playing rugby that's as accurate as it is aggressive, to win by being better and not by being better able to withstand the elements. If he can pull that off at any time over Connacht's six pool games it will be, nearly 10 years on from the scare that threatened their very existence, Connacht's crowning glory.

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