Elwood out to wake the West
NEW season, same old problem: what do we do with Connacht?
Black sheep, Cinderella province, Prodigal son -- the hackneyed descriptions have been constant companions for more than 10 years and seem destined to remain so, with optimism out west continuing to be rooted more in hope than expectation.
Michael Bradley put in a seven-year shift as Connacht coach which did not receive the credit it deserved and his successor Eric Elwood is now getting to grips with the realities of a daunting challenge, with the on-pitch aspect kicking off against the Dragons at home on Saturday week.
He expects to be without six front-liners through injury -- notably captain John Muldoon, who broke his arm on Ireland's summer tour -- and aside from No 8 Ezra Taylor, scrum-half Cillian Willis and a handful of promising All-Ireland League recruits, Elwood is working with the same raw materials that saw Connacht finish four points adrift at the bottom of the Magners League table last season.
If that were not enough of a test, there is also the fact that the management and players are on one-year contracts following the review into the future of Connacht rugby, creating the impression that these are men playing for their survival.
Elwood does not see it that way. The 41-year-old does not believe the plug is about to be pulled but he is desperate for Connacht to prove their viability on and off the pitch and, while he readily accepts that there is an overriding need to help themselves, Elwood is also looking to the IRFU for support.
"It baffles me," he admits. "We've done a review regarding the structure of Connacht rugby on and off the park. Yes, we want help and to work with the IRFU but I need answers now because I need to be competitive.
"I keep asking the question every week when I go into the meeting -- 'right lads, where are we now on the contracts?' I need to be able to promise these lads that there's light at the end of the tunnel. I can't keep calling in favours -- 'lads stay with me, Connacht are going places' -- they'd say, 'yeah, we heard that one before, Eric.' They are worried about their futures, as am I.
"I don't think they (the IRFU) want to pull the plug, I think that day is gone. But we need to be given a goal, a purpose in life. We want to be one of four -- are we? Work with us, help us, what do you think we should be doing? Yes, we have to be proactive off the pitch with the stand and raising money or whatever; yeah we can't be blaming the IRFU and saying give us more money; that's not the answer, we have to work ourselves.
"But we want to work with you -- help us, guide us, give us a purpose. What's my job? Tell me what you want from me. Do you want me to produce three or four guys to play for Ireland? Give me something, just don't give me whatever amount of money you're giving and tell me, 'do your best with that'."
Elwood is clear on Connacht's role. He wants the province to work with the IRFU to bring Irish rugby forward through the development of Irish players, and believes that should be the situation with all of the provinces.
"We need to work together for the betterment of Irish rugby. Things come in cycles and the glory days won't go on for ever and we've got to be thinking about where the next crop are coming from and are they getting the exposure.
"As well as the Sean Cronins, Fionn Carrs, Ian Keatleys, we can give other examples of fellahs who've come here and gone on -- you have Jerry Flannery, Tony Buckley, Eoin Reddan. We want to be one of four, we want to be part of it.
"Four is better than three. Declan Kidney has to choose between 60 professional players on a weekend, then you rule out the non Irish-qualified players and you could be down to 40; you take us our of it and where are you?
"Leinster and Munster are fantastic brands, great support base and good money behind them. But coaches go in there and their brief is to win the Heineken Cup, that's their main goal, not developing Irish rugby and they are going to pick and buy a team that they feel will win the European Cup.
"Now, who tells them not to do that? That has to come from somewhere and that's my problem with Irish rugby. Good luck to Munster and good luck to Leinster but if they have a brief to win the European Cup and they can buy or pick who they want, Irish rugby is going to struggle.
"There are some fantastic imports who have been fantastic for Irish rugby but someone's got to look at the bigger picture; someone's got to stand back and say, 'Irish players are losing out'."
In Connacht terms, there are reasons to be positive. Elwood can remember lifting dumb-bells in a poky office in the clubhouse back in the 1990s and is delighted with the state-of-the-art gym that has been built in the Sportsground.
Further improvements have seen the development of a purpose-built skills pitch, a drainage system put in on the regular training pitch and the Patrons of Connacht scheme to raise funds from Connacht supporters home and abroad. And, says Elwood, while there is no questioning Connacht's desire or application, their future depends on money.
"We can't do anything about where we are, we can't do anything about the climate we live in. All our facilities are on site, now we're trying to bring the community into it -- 'your province, your team' -- but it's all about money.
"I will do my best and I'll stay positive and pick the lads up and get the coaching set-up right but to be competitive, it's money. To win anything it's about money, to get off the bottom of the league it's about money. We're upbeat, we have to be, there's no bitterness.
"I can see where the IRFU are coming from. We marched 10 years ago and I'm being perfectly honest, the IRFU have given us X amount of money in 10 years and what have we done? What have we produced? Why didn't we upgrade the facilities and build a stand during he boom times? But, likewise, what do ye want us to do?"