Saturday 18 November 2017

Elwood now has tools to awaken the west

Tony Ward

Tony Ward

It was a bitingly cold weekend for rugby fans everywhere, except, we suspect, out west. For sure, Connacht's struggle to stay the professional pace has not been fixed through the stroke of an IRFU pen but a big step forward has been made.

Ireland's fourth proud province now have a fighting chance against the rest.

As one who suffered at the hands of Connacht -- being part of a Munster team that passed the 'world champion' mantle to the men from the west the year after we beat the All Blacks -- I know that pride cuts every bit as deep in Connacht rugby as it does elsewhere.

The demographics may differ but the desire to compete and, on occasion, savour success, is every bit the same as it is with Ireland's big Heineken Cup three.

How fitting it is to have Eric Elwood at the helm, a man who epitomises everything positive about Connacht rugby -- a man who wore his heart on his sleeve as a player and continues to do so as head coach.

All he and his players want is a half-decent chance to compete on an even keel with the other Irish three and hold their own in the Magners League, Amlin Challenge and, hopefully further down the road (but not too far), the Heineken Cup.

At a time when the IRFU are rightly copping a lot of flak, it's only fair to acknowledge this positive step for Irish rugby, particularly at a time of such financial strain. The setting up of a Professional Games Board for Connacht is a welcome initiative which, pending its impact, may in time be established north, south and east as well.

How welcome, for once, to have Connacht leading the way. While independent of the IRFU, the Board is accountable to the Union management committee but, it is made up of people from the business, legal and marketing worlds, who care about the game in general and about Connacht rugby in particular.

They have the wholehearted support of fair-minded rugby folk everywhere. It won't get the job done but it represents a good starting point. And there is much hard graft ahead.

The IRFU could have gone one of two ways. Both very different paths were chosen by rugby nations with resources broadly in line with ourselves.

For so long, Irish and Scottish rugby ran parallel. The advent of professionalism saw a parting of the ways. The Scots saw 'less as best', going with just two professional outfits, Edinburgh and Glasgow.

By their own admission it is not enough and, in choosing this so-called Super route they effectively killed rugby in the Borders as an entity. The Borders is to Scottish rugby what Munster continues to be to Irish rugby and the Valleys to Wales.

The other rough parallel was and continues to be with Australia. Despite the Wallabies' two World Cup wins, rugby union must compete with Aussie Rules, rugby league, cricket and now soccer for young hearts and minds in this sport-daft nation. Originally there were just two serious rugby-playing regions, Queensland and New South Wales, with pockets in Canberra ACT (Australian Capital Territory) and Perth WA (Western Australia).

But right from the get-go of Super Rugby, the ARU (Australian Rugby Union) invested in three states, with the ACT Brumbies joining the Queensland Reds and New South Wales Waratahs in the new southern hemisphere competition.

Since then the Perth-based Western Force and now the Melbourne Rebels (about to come on board) will bring the Aussie professional representation to five. Provided they are financially sustainable, then the Aussie route is the obvious way to go.

The Scots got it badly wrong. Dumping the Borders was a cultural own goal beyond belief.


In declaring their hand, the IRFU have given our fourth province a fighting chance. And were I Elwood, I too would loathe the principle of a 'development province'.

But they should take whatever surplus and emerging talent the other three have to offer as Sean Cronin, Jerry Flannery and others have shown that it's win-win.

And that pseudo-snub can be used as a motivational tool. Significantly, it is that perceived Dublin arrogance that influenced the development of a core siege mentality that has made Munster rugby the hot bed and powerhouse it is today.

The bottom line is that Connacht Rugby have a firm commitment (from the IRFU) for an initial three-year period to make it work. That longer-term security enables more meaningful contracts for players and, by extension, longer-term planning, with greater winning aspirations to be put in place.

Central to that is the product and here winning is central. Winning breeds confidence and a more successful side will bring an increasing flow of punters through the gates.

I may be accused of bias here but the Galway Sportsground does still cause concern.

As a player I hated it. When we played inter-pro rugby there we togged out either in the old Corinthians clubhouse down the road or more often in the team hotel, where we returned for a shower after the game. Invariably it was a wet and windy 80 minutes of drudgery.

To be fair, with the new changing-rooms, clubhouse and administrative offices located on the graveyard side of the ground it is un-recognisable from what it once was, yet it is some way short still of where it needs to be.

Quite why even a shared arrangement with Dubarry Park in Athlone cannot be brokered to the betterment of players and spectators is beyond me. I understand the politics at work -- Galway v Athlone -- but if Munster can make twin venues viable then why not Connacht?

Hopefully the PGB (Professional Game Board), given its make-up, will re-examine the Buccaneer option and do what is right for the province and not just for Galway.

That said, isn't it reassuring to be discussing a new and improved home (or homes) for Connacht moving forward?

It is the shop window for an underage system already strong in the clubs and growing by the year in the schools. By this decision, the IRFU has struck a blow for fairness and ensured the incentive for the Johnny O'Connors, the John Muldoons, the Gavin Duffys and so many other promising indigenous players coming through.

The more Connacht players we have competing for places in the national side, the better it is for Irish rugby. The other three will hardly agree but roll on the day when one is replaced by Connacht in the Heineken Cup.

On the back of the ticketing fiasco, suspicion surrounds the timing of this announcement but who cares? The game in the west has finally been given a fair crack of the whip and the medium-term security it covets. The ball is firmly in the PGB court. It is far from a blank cheque but a license to move forward with pragmatic conviction.

Irish Independent

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