Connacht’s long-awaited qualification for Heineken Cup rugby is being hailed as an exciting opportunity that the province must grab - both on and off the pitch.
Leinster’s triumph over Northampton in Saturday’s 2011 final earned Ireland an additional place, and Connacht coach Eric Elwood says after 15 years of waiting for this chance, the province now must capitalise.
“It does not matter how we qualified,” he says. “What matters now is that we are in the big league, the Holy Grail, and the opportunities for us on and off the park, because of what Leinster did, are tremendous.
“I can see nothing but positives about us being in the Heineken Cup. Now it is up to the people to show their support. The opportunities for the province, the professional game, the amateur game, the supporters, and the new supporters, are massive.”
Connacht are set to host two of Europe’s top teams when the draw is made on June 7 - a French side, possibly Toulouse, Perpignan or Clermont Auvergne, in addition to a top English premiership club, and Elwood is already excited at the prospect.
“We are definitely going to get a top French team, and that is going to raise the bar for us. Can you imagine playing Toulouse and Leicester? What a buzz for a young player - Toulouse - never seen in the Sportsground. Talk about providing that kind of entertainment and that kind of match-day experience for your supporters - what an opportunity.”
Elwood has already completed his squad for next season - with one remaining position to fill which he hopes will be a “big name” centre - but with no extra funding from the IRFU despite Connacht’s step into the elite competition, he warns it will be a tough challenge.
“ We have what we have and it will take a bit of work. It is going to be tough, but the fact that we are in this big competition will give us a lift.
“We have tried to get the best player within budget because we are working under tight constraints and we are limited. So we have had to get a balance - make a sacrifice in some areas which is not ideal for us to get a player in other areas that are more urgent. We have 16 new players coming in. Yes, we have lost some good players too, but I believe some of the new players will add something. I think there will be huge demands on our squad, but I believe the lads are good, hungry, and hopefully the intensity in training and in attitude will be raised because of the Heineken Cup.”
Elwood says Connacht’s priority off the pitch is to provide the necessary facilities for supporters.
“We all know what needs to be done. We need to provide for our supporters, build our support base, and the way to do that is provide facilities. People know what needs to be done. Leinster have got us in the Heineken Cup and there is good will out there - so there can be no excuses.”
Planning permission has already been secured for a new stand, but, given the economic restraints, it is likely to be built over several stages - the first of which will be to provide a cover for supporters.
“We are playing a professional sport. People come here expecting to be entertained, protected from the elements, bring their children and get something to eat and drink - that’s the match day experience - you cannot expect people to stand in the rain.
“We are not going to get money from the IRFU - that’s not going to happen - so we have to raise our own funds, that’s what we have been told for a long time. I think we can do that, and I think we are capable - OK it could be in a couple of phases - but the point is we need to provide cover for our supporters next season and, depending on finance, we might be able to go to phase two the year after.”
Elwood insists Connacht must enjoy the season ahead given the difficulty in qualifying again through the Magners League. Last season Elwood guided the province to its best seasonal finish, above Glasgow, Treviso and Aironi - all Heineken Cup teams. But to qualify again they must finish above Leinster, Munster or Ulster who finished in the top three.
“I cannot in all honesty make unrealistic claims - our targets will be realistic and achievable. I was very pleased we finished above three Heineken Cup sides last season, and if we can match that or better it, then I think it will be a very good season for us because there will huge demands on our squad in the Magners and in the Heineken Cup.
“Yes it’s a challenge, but it’s more of an opportunity. We will enjoy the journey, the home matches and the away trips, we will continue to work hard in the Magners, but at the end of the year wouldn’t it be nice to say that we have X amount of season ticket holders, a new fan base, we have people coming from Sligo, we have people from Leitrim, that we have new facilities, and that we have upgraded - at the end of the day that is what should happen.”