Elwood looking forward to fresh start
Ahead of the Magners League campaign, new Connacht coach Eric Elwood told JOE how much he is relishing the task of taking charge of his home province.
With Conor Hogan
Eric Elwood spent 17 years as a player with Connacht and four and a half years as assistant manager. This Saturday, he will manage the province for the first time in a home match at the Sportsground.
Elwood is looking forward to the task but is well aware he has some enormous boots to fill. The man he will be replacing, Michael Bradley, did wonders with Connacht in his seven years in charge before leaving at the end of last season. Despite Connacht's limited resources, the province have made two challenge cup semi-finals and a quarter final in the last three years.
â€œMichael Bradley and I go back a long way,â€ Elwood told JOE ahead of Saturday's clash with the Newport Gwent-Dragons. â€œIâ€™ve great respect for him. He was the one that gave me the opportunity to get into the coaching side of things. He has educated me the best he could, so I would be in a good postion to take over, and heâ€™s left the place in great condition.â€
Elwood is aware of the massive task he has on his hands. Connachtâ€™s budget in comparison to the other provinces is miniscule to say the least.
â€œIt (the budget issue) is well documented and people know that we donâ€™t have the same resources as other provinces. Itâ€™s an ongoing struggle between the managament people here and the IRFU.
"When you are looking to build and improve your squad and youâ€™ve got those limited resources at hand, it doesnâ€™t help. Weâ€™ve had an improvement in facilities recently, and I hope the funding issues will be resolved pretty quickly.â€
â€œItâ€™s an exciting week for me,â€ says Elwood. â€œI have this huge challenge and my kids are also going back to school.Â Iâ€™m more nervous about my kids going to school, and they are more nervous about me and my first match. I was a bit anxious at training, with it being the first one and who we are playing. If we get the win Iâ€™ll be mighty chuffed.
â€œAll I can do is try and be myself and coach the team to the principles I believe in. The game has changed a lot in the last few years. The laws have changed and rugby is very unstructured now. Whether you are a back or forward, you have to be able to play with the ball in your hands.
â€œBeing from the province, fans will expect a lot from me, but I ainâ€™t going to reinvent the wheel or win every game. Iâ€™ll try and give the team good direction, improve defensive statistics, and get us to do our best with ball in hand.â€
In a way, Elwood couldnâ€™t have picked a better match to start with â€“ a home game at the Sportsground against the Newport Gwent Dragons â€“ a team Connacht have a good record against.
â€œHistory would clearly say weâ€™d win the game,â€ he says, â€œbut for me itâ€™s a bit more finely balanced than that. Itâ€™s the start of the season, so none of the teams have any form to speak of. To me itâ€™s 50/50. We have a lot of injuries, we want to get off to a good start and a get a home win to give us that confidence.â€
Injuries are indeed an enourmous concern for the 41-year old. Captain John Muldoon is out until at least October, Johnny Oâ€™Connor and Robbie Morris are both out with back injuries, while there are doubts about Keith Matthews' fitness, though he has been included in the squad to face the Dragons. In fact, Connacht only had two pre-season matches this year in an effort to minimize the possibility of more injuries occurring.
The main aim for Connacht, as always, is to finish ahead of one of the Irish teams and qualify for the Heineken Cup. The province came within a couple of wins of doing that last year; though this season the task looks more difficult than ever. Ulster, the team they have been chasing in the last few years, have strengthened heavily with the triple South African signings of Johann Muller, Pedrie Wannenburg and Ruan Pienaar.
"Every team has improved and added to their squad, though Ulster have made great strides in their recruitment. In the last few years the third Irish side has been Ulster, but whoever it is this time, we'll try and get as close to them as possible.
"Itâ€™s a big challenge ahead; ultimately all that matters for now is that we win that game on Saturday."