If you were in any doubt as to why Eric Elwood is reversing from Connacht at the end of the season then tune into TG4 tomorrow night (9.30) and all will be revealed. Even if you are already crystal clear about the coach’s decision, tune in anyway.
Iris Productions’ The West is Awake is not just compelling viewing, but a useful tool for the career guidance teacher, if any of their number remain in what’s left of our education system. Fancy life as a pro rugby player? Eh, then watch this.
In 1997 the fly on the wall documentary Living with Lions entered rugby folklore for two reasons: for the first time it opened the door to the dressingroom; and it had a special story to tell ie a winning Lions tour. Sky have been drawing on that in vain ever since, with camera men chasing teams out of changing rooms and onto the field, eaves-dropping on the team huddle.
Connacht’s story goes down a similar road but with entirely different scenery. Their group is comprised mostly of middle order pros. The plan was to give us a close up of how they coped with stepping for the first time into the unforgiving world of the Heineken Cup. What we got instead was a fascinating story of a group circling the wagons, trying to break the cycle of defeat.
The budget for the production covered only the Heineken games, but the run of defeats took on a momentum of its own, climbing to the horrendous figure of 14. So the camera was sent on Pro 12 duty for fear the win would be delivered without a witness.
Then, right on cue, success came in Connacht’s final pool game, against Harlequins. By then the scene had been set and we understood perfectly how this was a triumph.
The West’s Awake captures what Connacht is about and where they come in the pecking order. Elwood is the obvious embodiment of this, but Johnny O’Connor and John Muldoon are not far behind him. Their passion is awesome. And it needs to be. You feel the gut wrenching tension of the changing-room before they go out, some of it pure fear, knowing that if they don’t perform they’ll be beaten out the gate. And you almost weep at the close calls than ended in failure.
By a distance the toughest of these was the pool match in Kingsholm, with Connacht at number nine on their run of losses. Having played really well they could almost reach out and touch the finish line. That’s when Adrian Flavin fell off a tackle on Gloucester’s Jonny May. Make that defeat number 10. The immediate reactions of anguish from manager Tim Allnutt, hunched on the sideline, and the coaching bench in the back of the stand, are images that linger.
We see a disconsolate Flavin slumped in the corner afterwards (seemingly he was there, mute, for 40 minutes) but don’t get his testimony the morning after, which you suspect could have been special. And neither do we explore that other string to Connacht’s bow – if on the one hand they are survivors, always battling the odds, then so too are they a second chance saloon for refugees from other provinces. Those voices would have added more colour to the picture.
Getting some 80 hours of footage down to one, when you’re dealing with such rich material and genuinely likeable characters, must be a painful process. I suspect the reaction to TG4’s screening will be so positive that producer Kieran Hartigan will be able to plough on and produce a longer dvd version, in which the full picture will emerge. It will be the perfect Christmas present for the rugby fan in your life.
Given the torrent of cursing in it however you might want to make a watershed decision on that one. Oddly enough there isn’t a gratuitous fuck in the whole thing. Every expletive has its place.
A fair few of them fall from the mouth of Elwood, the star of the show. And as for exactly why he is now on the last lap, watch as his team takes the field for that historic first home game against Toulouse. We see Elwood on the coaches’ bench trying to stem the floods of tears. The job consumes him. And it’s fascinating to watch.