Saturday 18 November 2017

Elwood's opening gambit is full of western promise

Taking on a new job can be difficult but Eric Elwood is making it look easy, says Jim Glennon

Jim Glennon

T he preliminary early-season sparring is behind us and the real season is under way. So far, it has been quite an impressive start to the season from an Irish perspective too, Leinster apart.

For me, the main story of these opening weeks is the contrasting fortunes of the country's two new head coaches, Eric Elwood in Connacht and Joe Schmidt in Leinster.

The portents for Leinster weren't good before the season even started. The massive disappointments at the end of last season in the defeats to Toulouse and the Ospreys, combined with the summer turnover in the backroom team, pointed to this season being one of transition. Four games in and that is increasingly looking the case.

A hat-trick of away defeats, to Glasgow, Treviso and Edinburgh, regardless of margins, does not inspire confidence. With the games against Munster and the Heineken opener against French championship leaders Racing Metro just around the corner, there's uncertainty surrounding the set-up.

It would be unfair, however, to lay the outbreak of mediocrity solely at the feet of Schmidt. The season upon which we have just embarked is a mammoth one by any standards and the requirement for strict management of playing resources is a significant extra difficulty for Schmidt to contend with, in addition to the usual obstacles facing any coach in the process of taking over a squad with which he has had no previous involvement.

The rules laid down by Declan Kidney and his colleagues in national team management were never going to please everybody, and we will have to wait until this time next year for the only valid assessment of their value. Their requirement for withdrawal of certain players after 60 minutes, a juncture when most games are finely balanced, is one which is already causing difficulty, and particularly so for a coach in the throes of getting to know his squad.

In addition, the only senior staff member to retain his role from Michael Cheika's tenure is forwards coach Jonno Gibbes, and even he has only a couple of seasons at the RDS under his belt. Cheika was half-way through his fourth season before he generated a sustained momentum.

It has certainly been an intriguing start to the season, and the biggest story in Irish rugby so far has been Eric Elwood's impact on stepping up to the coaching plate. Connacht's start to the season is one that even some of their own supporters can scarcely believe.

Traditionally, as far back as the early days of my own first involvement in provincial rugby in the 1970s, there has been little in common between the eastern and western provinces. That trend has continued in the opening weeks of this season -- but in reverse.

Elwood, a true Connacht legend, took over having served his time as assistant to Michael Bradley and, in contrast to Leinster's import from Clermont, he has hit the ground running. Admittedly, the former international out-half hasn't been impacted by the restrictions on international players, nor is he likely to be, but whatever benefits accrue on that side are more than counter-balanced by the meagre budget wiith which he operates.

The westerners never had a problem with identity as a motivational tool, and there is no more blue-blooded Connacht rugby figure than Elwood. I was delighted

to see during the pre-season that while every other team in Britain and Ireland appeared to be criss-crossing Europe for their pre-season training camps, Connacht went to the Aran Islands for theirs; a great call on the part of their management. Their results since then speak for themselves -- a rout of the Dragons at home in the season opener, followed by a last-minute loss in Parc y Scarlet and then that win in Glasgow. Undoubtedly, the lack of depth in their squad will eventually take its toll but, for the moment anyway, what's seldom is wonderful and, for Irish rugby as much as for Connacht, the longer it continues the better.

These opening rounds of the league have stimulated much greater interest than in previous years with Leinster and Connacht central to the novelty.

A tale of two provinces, two teams, and two rookie head-coaches, and a fascinating sub-plot to occupy us, hopefully for a long time to come.

Sunday Independent

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