Connacht Tribune - Opinion Piece
Elwood’s imminent departure leaves big boots to fillOctober 10, 2012 - 8:09am
IT’S one of the sporting bombshells of the year and despite sparking a series of conspiracy theories, Eric Elwood’s shock decision to step aside as Connacht Head Coach at the end of the season is not shrouded in controversy or the result of personality clashes, a shift in policy at the Sportsground or a big offer from another club.
In blunt terms, Elwood has had enough. For the past 25 years, he has been the heart and soul of Connacht rugby, going from a highly consistent and internationally recognised out half for 17 seasons to becoming Michael Bradley’s Assistant coach for five years before stepping into the big job itself in the summer of 2010.
Similar to his illustrious playing career, Elwood has spared no effort in driving Connacht forward in his Head Coaching role. He needed to be single-minded, ambitious, passionate and totally committed, especially as he was a popular local appointment, but the 43-year-old’s devotion to the cause went way beyond the normal call of duty.
Elwood was determined that Connacht would not falter on his watch.
Even away from the Sportsground, his thoughts would have been preoccupied with getting the best out of his players, enhancing the team’s image, boosting crowd numbers and improving facilities at the College Road venue. Elwood would have thrown himself enthusiastically into every aspect of Connacht rugby, even if it wasn’t part of his job spec.
Such was Elwood’s sporting standing – having played football for Galway would have increased his public awareness too – some people began following Connacht out of loyalty to him alone. He rarely let them down. Lining out a then record of 168 times for the province and largely through a period when games at that level were far less plentiful than they are now, he willingly put his body on the line for Connacht for 17 seasons.
Elwood was no ordinary out half either. His talent earned him 35 caps for Ireland and he scored 296 points during an international career which also saw him participate in the World Cups of 1995 and 1999 in South Africa and France respectively. He was also coach to the Irish U-20 team which won the Grand Slam in the 2006-07 season.
It was virtually inevitable that Elwood would end up in a sideline role with Connacht. As the most successful West of Ireland rugby player of the modern era and one who had a natural interest in coaching, it served the Connacht Branch of the IRFU’s best interests to recruit somebody who had instant supporter recognition and respect. He was the classic local hero.
When Elwood took over from Michael Bradley, however, some wondered would the province not have been better served by bringing in an outsider who would offer a completely new coaching dynamic, but the powers that be put their trust in the Mervue native and he has certainly vindicated that vote of confidence in more ways than one.
On the field, Connacht achieved their highest ever placing in last season’s RaboDirect Pro12, while also performing honourably in their debut Heineken Cup campaign which was rounded off by a surprising pool game defeat of Harlequins which cost the English Premiership club a place in the knock-out stages. Off-field, the Connacht brand has never been stronger, while crowds have surged at the Sportsground where the new Clan Terrace has greatly enhanced the atmosphere at the ground.
Though Connacht were making a stuttering start to the new season until their sensational bonus point triumph over Leinster last Friday night week, the overall picture was still positive, making the timing of Elwood’s announcement all the more surprising. But he has always valued honesty and it was this trait which motivated him to keep his employers and players in the loop. It was as simple as that.
Elwood was probably being worn down by his slavish loyalty to Connacht. Living locally, there was no escape from it and one can only imagine the amount of sleepless nights he endured, for instance, when the team suffered a 13-match losing run last season. Family life was obviously being compromised as well and he clearly felt the need to redress this imbalance.
For more, read this week's Connacht Tribune.