A new structure has been put in place in Connacht that is going to make a big difference to the way the pro game is run in the province.
Eric Elwood says: “First and foremost, a Professional Game Board has been set up with a panel that includes ex-Ireland scrum-half Conor McGuinness and several prominent local businessmen. Among them is a good friend of mine, Simon Heaslip, who used to be chairman of Galwegians RFC, so he has a good understanding of both rugby and business. Because rugby is a business these days, we need to get the cash registers ringing in Connacht if we’re to reach the same level as Ulster, Munster and Leinster.
Despite Ireland’s recent economic problems, we’re still getting the numbers through the door at Connacht, mainly because we offer fans an attractive brand with the Magners League and Amlin Challenge Cup. But there’s room for improvement, especially in facilities, and we want to build a stand worthy of Connacht rugby.
Another part of the agreement reached between Connacht and the IRFU is that Munster, Leinster and Ulster have given a commitment to allow more movement of players to Connacht. Now, without wishing to sound too much of a sceptic, this sounds good in theory but will it work in practice? We’ll have to wait and see.
All I know is that I have a team with a lot of good young players and I’m seeing too many enticed away, and it’s happening now with the likes of Sean Cronin and a few others.
There’s a huge pool of untapped talent in Ireland at schoolboy level and I want to develop it. Tony Ward, the former Ireland fly-half now involved with Leinster Schools, told me of the potential that’s out there. And taking Connacht as an example, when I was at school there were only four or five schools playing rugby, but now there are over 25. We need to spot the talent and nurture it, and we’re well placed at Connacht to do that. I believe that if you’re good enough you deserve a chance, so I’ve no problem blooding 20-year-olds in the Magners League. That’s better than them going elsewhere and sitting on the bench until they’re 22 or 23.
I’m delighted the IRFU has taken this step as for too long it’s been ‘three provinces plus Connacht’. We’ve been crying out for players to come to us and get game time, rather than sitting on the bench at other provinces.
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The ultimate goal is to make the national side as strong as possible and we can best do that by giving Connacht equal footing with Leinster, Munster and Ulster. It will be far better for Declan Kidney to have four sides to choose from instead of just three, particularly in the near future as the current cycle of great players ends. O’Driscoll, O’Gara, D’Arcy and Wallace can’t go on forever and Irish rugby must do everything it can to find their successors.
This article appeared in the February 2011 issue of Rugby World Magazine
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