Eric Elwood will be stepping back from the Connacht job at the end of the season. Nobody saw this coming because nobody has ever considered Connacht without Elwood at the forefront of the operation. The silver lining on the cloud is that they have a decent lead-in time to search for a successor.
Your immediate reaction to news of a coach’s departure is to ask had push come to shove, but that is not the case here. Connacht are in better shape on the field than they have ever been. My understanding is that Elwood is stepping back literally to take time out from a job that has consumed his life. He will elaborate tomorrow on what his next move will be.
At today’s launch of the Heineken Cup in Lansdowne Road, where naturally enough there was no talk of what will be officially announced at tomorrow’s press conference in Galway, Elwood was being asked about Connacht’s prospects in Europe.
He rounded his answer off by explaining why he was eaten up by setbacks like losing this season at home to Cardiff and Scarlets.
“There’s times when it goes over the top. There’s times when I let it get to me but it is my make-up and we put a lot of effort into that game (Scarlets) and I felt in 11 minutes we blew it. I don’t make any apologies for that and I told the boys that. They know it’s not good enough because if we want to get to where we want to get to, we’ve got to be tough on each other.
“We’ve got to confront the facts all the time. That’s the way we operate. I make no apologies for that. As a person that’s who I am. I wear my heart on my sleeve but there is times I may go over the top but that’s also fine because the lads know me and they don’t take it too personally, but we’re here to drive things on. I’m here to get the best out of these guys the best I can.”
As he was talking he looked like a fella who could do with giving himself a break from his obsession.
Although Elwood will be leaving in May at the end of a three year contract as head coach, he was assistant to Michael Bradley for five years, having moved straight into coaching from his playing career which started with the province in the dark ages: 1989.
At the time there was concern that he was jumping too fast from coaching to playing, never having taken the reins for example with a club side before going into the pro game. His greatest difficulty as it turned out was being on the other side of the desk when bad news had to be delivered. He dreaded this aspect of the job especially in taking over from Bradley, but seemed to be coping pretty well.
His departure is a blow on a few levels. First he was doing great work on the field. Connacht were bottom of the table in Michael Bradley’s last three seasons. It went to a 12 club operation in 2010/11, and Elwood brought them above both Italian sides, and Glasgow; and then up to eighth place last season with Edinburgh and the Dragons joining the Italians in trailing Connacht.
Second, as a Galway boy born and reared, Elwood has long since been the face of Connacht rugby, the calling card for the commercial side of the operation, which is growing at the Sportsground. It’s hard to put a value on that connection.
It will be harder still to imagine a dugout without him in it. And unless the job goes local, then all four provinces will be run by overseas men. In a professional sport it’s about getting the best, regardless of where they’re from, but if you’re in the business of developing rugby then growing your own is also part of the plan.
Elwood is very much a product of the west and of that Irish system. I hope the step back is not a step out altogether.