Connacht’s most successful rugby player Eric Elwood is tipped to take over the reins from Michael Bradley next season.
Elwood, who was capped 35 times for Ireland and appeared in a record 175 provincial matches, has already been installed as the early frontrunner to replace Michael Bradley as Connacht’s director of coaching.
After seven years at the helm Bradley’s decision to leave at the end of this season does not come as a surprise. The 46-years-old former Irish scrumhalf and the Connacht branch mutually agreed to make the announcement sooner rather than later. With his contract up at the end of this season, the annoucement followed a Connacht victory over Llanelli and during the break for the Autumn internationals, while giving time for both sides to plan their futures. Leinster, too, announced early in the season that this would be Michael Cheika’s last year in charge.
Bradley is keen to continue his coaching career, whether in Ireland or overseas, while the Connacht branch officials were to meet last night to select a committee charged with appointing his replacement. While Elwood is regarded as the natural successor and highly regarded, there are some concerns at his lack of experience at the grass roots. Having never coached a club side, Elwood joined the Connacht management team as an assistant five years ago following his retirement from the game. However those concerns are more than likely to be outweighed by the desire to appoint a son of the province. Not since the late eighties has there been a home-grown coach, Declan McDermott, who co-incidentally gave Elwood his first provincial cap. Without doubt Elwood is the most successful Connacht player, and his passion and dedication to the province are unquestioned. What he might lack in club coaching experience is more than compensated by his experience with the Irish u-20s. Along with fellow Connacht assistant Dan McFarland, Elwood took the Irish team to a Grand Slam title.
Having served his apprenticeship as Bradley’s assistant there are few who would deny him this opportunity. His appointment would also allow a new member to be added to the coaching ticket, who could provide the fresh voice some critics believe Connacht need.
Connacht branch officials would hope to have Bradley’s replacement in situ sooner rather than later, particularly with contract negotiations impending for next season.
Meanwhile Bradley is hoping to sign off having achieved the province’s much-prized ambition of Heineken Cup qualification.
When he took over as coach, the province was at a low ebb following the departure of South African Steph Nel, a host of players that included Johnny O’Connor, Gavin Duffy and Eoin Reddan, and the IRFU’s real threat of disbandment. The contract was for one year only with the expectation (and likely promise ) that Bradley would progress to greater challenges. Few, including Bradley, would have expected his tenure to run this long. Twice missing out on the Munster job, it is testament to Bradley that he has maintained his professionalism throughout his tenure, promoted the development of young players, and tried to encourage the development of the Connacht brand.
At the time of his appointment, he said positive play, commitment from the community, and performance were attainable goals. “We are all going to define what Connacht means to us and stand or fall by it.”
During his tenure Bradley has come in for his fair share of criticism, but it is readily acknowledged the success of any coach in this province is undermined by the limited resources. Connacht have enjoyed several highlights, not least victories over Munster and Leinster last season, while two semi-finals at European level produced huge expectations. Yet the goal of playing Heineken Cup rugby has still eluded the province, which Bradley readily acknowledges.
“ To qualify for the Heineken Cup would be a great way to sign off,” he says.
“While not achieving the consistency in performance that all directors of rugby crave, Connacht has enjoyed some fantastic nights especially in the Sportsground and these are great memories.
“To the current squad there is a lot of rugby to be played this season. I would also like pay a special thanks to the Connacht supporters. They are an inspiration to our team and long may it continue.”
Connacht branch CEO Gerry Kelly says to coach Connacht is different from other provincial coaching jobs, lacking the same budget or high profile players.
“Michael Bradley must be congratulated for his professionalism - he simply got on with the job. Connacht has made huge strides since the advent of the professional era and Michael Bradley has led that progress for the past seven years. His professionalism, his man-management, and his development of young players are just some of his strengths.
“The number of players who have come through and gone to play at the highest level is testimony to that great work.
“I would like to pay tribute to Michael Bradley for all he has done for Connacht Rugby and wish him well in his career. I look forward to continue to work with him for the remainder of this season.”