Mike McCarthy’s departure to Dublin has come after repeated and concerted efforts by Leinster Rugby over a number of years.
The Heineken Cup champions have continued to target the 31 years old lock since first signing for Connacht in 2004, but his elevation to the Irish squad this season prompted renewed efforts.
After Leinster leaked the move yesterday morning, Connacht reacted swiftly, condemning Leinster for having “persistently targeted Connacht players in recent years particularly when often not in the best interest of Irish Rugby."
And although it is understood McCarthy’s decision to move to Dublin was not an easy one, it is still a major blow for the province.
“Not happy,” said CEO Tom Sears. “We have done everything we can to keep him. Mike has always been upfront about it and we wish him the best, but we are extremely disappointed.”
Former CEO Gerry Kelly confirmed Leinster had been chasing McCarthy for several years and that the popular Connacht squad member had been on the cusp of moving two seasons ago. However McCarthy was just one of numerous players who have come into Leinster’s radar as a direct result of regularly performing well for Connacht.
Keeping players in the province had always “been one of the biggest challenges”, Kelly said, exacerbated by Connacht’s small squad which resulted in huge turnovers every season.
Among the most notable players who were poached by other provinces during Kelly’s tenure were Sean Cronin, Fionn Carr, Jamie Hagan (Leinster), Jerry Flannery and Ian Keatley (Munster), while Eoin Reddan, Johnny O’Connor, Gavin Duffy, and Damien Browne headed cross-channel before returning to Ireland.
Jerry Flannery, who began his professional career with Connacht, went on to have a successful tenure with his native Munster and Ireland, but many believe the careers of others have faltered.
“Many of those players were noticed by the other provinces because they were getting regular starts with Connacht, but you would have to argue if many of their careers have moved on since they left,” said Kelly.
“Leinster always appear to look west, although they could possibly argue we look east to their young players. Now with the curb on foreign players, all provinces are increasingly looking to each other for experienced players.”
Kelly said Connacht had continued to raise this plight with the IRFU believing the organisation could do more proactive. While the IRFU takes the view that it is a player’s choice, there are many who believe the IRFU, as the paymasters, can and should contract players to different provinces.
Now Connacht has the job of finding a replacement for McCarthy who first joined Connacht in 2004 from Wasps. A former England underage player, McCarthy has been an integral member of the squad both on and off the field during his two tenures. After three years with Newcastle Falcons, he returned in 2007, earning his 100th cap for Connacht against Bayonne in the 2010/11 European Challenge Cup. On the field his line-out ability and physical presence has made him a crucial player in a burgeoning Connacht squad, while off the pitch, the affable McCarthy is a firm favourite with the supporters.
Sears says: “ Connacht Rugby will continue to work with the IRFU to find a world-class replacement for Mike and to further build and strengthen our squad, with a view to delivering more success for Connacht Rugby.”
Meanwhile in the replacement hunt for coach Eric Elwood, Tom Sears confirmed a number of candidates had been interviewed recently.
Although Mr Sears said the names of those candidates were confidential, it is understood six coaches have been interviewed.
They include current Connacht assistant coach Dan McFarland and backs coach Billy Millerd, former Ospreys coach Sean Holley, former Auckland coach Pat Lam, former England outhalf and Clermont assistant coach Alex King, and New Zealander and former Wasps coach Tony Hanks. At present only McFarland, Millerd and King are currently coaching full time. Lam was let go by Auckland in favour of John Kirwan, Holly is currently involved in a television career, while Hanks was sacked by Sale in March, having left Wasps by mutual consent after 21 months.
Tom Sears said the committee charged with appointing a new coach, which includes himself, PGB members Conor McGuinness and Steve Cunningham, and an IRFU member, would “over the course of the week be looking at the next step in the selection process”.
This could include conducting second interviews with the candidates, casting the net wider, or making an offer, he said.
He still hoped to be in a position to make an appointment early in the New Year.