Last month Leinster had to use all their resolve to come back from a 16-point deficit to beat Northampton 33-22 and win the Heineken Cup. The goods they produced in the second half stunned a packed Millennium Stadium and they lifted the European trophy for the second time in three years. As for Munster, they finished the regular season 13 points clear at the head of the Magners League table while Ulster made the top four for the first time since 2006, losing to Leinster in the semi-final, so things are looking rosy in the Irish rugby garden.
But the biggest news at the end of the campaign was Connacht’s entry into next season’s Heineken Cup – a competition they have never played in before. The smallest province finished ninth in this year’s Magners League above Treviso, Glasgow and Aironi, a notable improvement on the last-place position that they made their own for the previous three seasons. Now they have the opportunity to build on their promising year both on and off the pitch in Europe’s premier competition, their place secured by virtue of Leinster’s Heineken Cup win and which means all four Irish provinces will compete in the tournament for the first time.
Eric Elwood, who has just completed his first season as head coach, is pleased with his side’s progress and believes that setting the team simple targets has helped them move up the table.
“We’re pleased with how we finished,” says Elwood. “During the course of the year we set ourselves clear performance goals that we felt were realistic and achievable. We finished ahead of three other teams and in the past we had finished last. We could have done a little bit better but every team in the league could say that.
“In the past we would’ve been seen to be very competitive at home, so we wanted to make sure we were competitive at home and away, and to gain the respect of other teams in the league. How we played our rugby was another goal for us, and we wanted to improve our try-scoring and our points differential.”
Although the province has taken a step forward, Elwood knows that all-round improvements need to be made and he hopes their entry into the Heineken Cup will provide a springboard for the game to grow in Connacht. The province hope that the financial opportunities that will arise from being a part of the tournament will help their plans to upgrade facilities at the Sportsground, and having world-class players from European teams visiting Galway will be a huge draw for spectators. Firstly, though, Elwood is over the moon about a significant landmark in their history.
“This is the holy grail. We’ve been in the Amlin (Challenge Cup) since it started but the holy grail has always been to get into the ERC (Heineken Cup) by whatever means possible, so Leinster have done us a huge favour.
“This is everything to us. The thought of a Toulouse or a Leicester or Perpignan coming to Galway and filling our park with all their stars is terrific. We’re in with the big boys. Can we compete with the big boys? Therein lies the next big question, but there’s great excitement and great enthusiasm here.
“It’s a massive opportunity to expand our fan base. We’ve got to upgrade our facilities and the wheels are in motion for a new stand. We’re looking to provide a good match-day experience. The professional game is about comfort and entertainment, and we have to come up to the mark on that.”
Despite a positive season, Connacht have struggled to hold on to some of their most promising players. For instance, Ireland hooker Sean Cronin and winger Fionn Carr, the first Connacht player to appear in a Magners League Dream Team, will be playing for Leinster next season. However, Elwood is staying positive and is excited about welcoming 16 new players to the province for 2011-12.
“We must be doing something right if people are coming looking for our players. For us, we’re disappointed that we’ve lost what we would see as four starters, four good, young Irish players in Jamie (Hagan), Ian (Keatley), Sean and Fionn, but there are other clubs out there that see the good work we’re doing here, how we’ve developed those players and helped them to develop themselves. For the other provinces, it’s World Cup year and they’re also looking to get these players in and unfortunately we weren’t able to hold on to them. I’m afraid that’s just the nature of the business we’re in.
“I’m excited about George (Naoupu), our No 8, coming back, he’ll bring good stability. And I’m looking forward to seeing John Muldoon returning from injury. Our young lads should see this as a massive opportunity to test themselves against the best teams in Europe.
“All I want to do is say I was part of the squad that was able to put Connacht on the map in Europe. I’m looking to produce players who can play for Ireland and I want to raise the profile of Connacht.”
Did you Know?
Connacht are offering fans some great deals on season tickets. Various packages include a supporters’ scarf, two complimentary tickets and free beer at home games! For more info, go to connachtrugby.ie
This article appeared in the July 2011 issue of Rugby World Magazine.
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