Connacht Rugby returns to action tomorrow (6.30pm ) after the summer break with the first of two pre-season friendlies to be played at the Galway Sportsground.
English premiership side Harlequins are the opponents before fellow league side Saracens make their first visit to Galway on August 21.
Tomorrow night’s fixture is the first with local rugby hero Eric Elwood in charge, having sat alongside Michael Bradley in the assistant’s chair for five seasons. He will be flanked by three former players with whom he played - Dan McFarland, promoted from forwards coach to assistant coach; manager Tim Allnutt; and new video analyst Conor McPhillips. Brian Melrose, who boasts a wealth of coaching experience in Australia, is the new backs coach, and a first for Connacht is a specially designated defence coach in former Great Britain rugby league star Mike Forshaw.
As a result there is increasing interest in Connacht’s fortunes this season and whether this new management team can deliver on the long-held ambition to qualify for the Heineken Cup.
Reaching the upper echelon of European rugby remains Connacht’s top priority, but Elwood is more concerned with achieving it through a consistent Magners League campaign than the Amlin Cup, which this year also sees Connacht pitted against tomorrow’s opposition Harlequins.
"If we were to qualify through the Amlin we will take that, but certainly for me one of the big goals is the Magners League," says Elwood.
"There is something about the Amlin Cup and that looks after itself, but to be perfectly honest the challenge is in the Magners League and that is where we want to set out our stall. That is the bread and butter and what you get judged on, so that is where we want to make our gains.”
Tomorrow night Elwood says his “innovative” pre-season training, that has included a boot camp, bonding and leadership training in the Curragh, and a visit to the Aran Island "to give the guys a flavour of what Connacht might mean to the people of the province”, will be tested.
“I want to see if all the hard work done in the pre-season is reflected in fitness levels in a competitive environment,” he says.
In addition Connacht, like all the other teams, must adapt to the new laws, in particular at the breakdown where the defending tackler will be penalised for failing to release the tackled player.
“Everyone available will be given game time over the next two weeks and we need to see how the players implement our systems, both in defence and attack, against quality opposition.”
Although Elwood says winning would be a bonus - “We are certainly going out to win” - he would prefer Connacht to be fully prepared for the season opener against the Newport Gwent Dragons.
“It would be nice to win, but if we lose the next games and go out and beat the Dragons, then I will take that. These games are about testing our systems, analysing our fitness levels, and also giving individual players the opportunity to shine.”
In the absence of John Muldoon, who remains sidelined following the operation to his arm after playing for Ireland against New Zealand, Elwood has opted to hand the captain’s role to fellow home-grown talent Johnny O’Connor.
Also out of action are fellow Irish teammates Sean Cronin and Gavin Duffy, while injured are props Robbie Morris and Ronan Loughney, and wing Brian Tuohy. Wing Liam Bibo is still exam-tied in Australia.
Elwood has opted to start with a familiar looking XV with the new-season signings, No 8 Ezra Taylor, scrumhalf Cillian Willis, and wings Darragh Fanning and Shane Monahan, on an extended bench of 12. Also on the bench is new prop Rob Sweeney from St Mary’s who is providing cover in Morris’ absence.
Despite working on one-year contracts and with “limited budgets and restraints”, Elwood remains upbeat about Connacht’s prospects.
“I am very happy with the continuity of the squad going forward from last year. The guys who have come in - Ezra [Taylor] has played at a high level, and we have to give him the opportunity to fill George's [Naoupu] boots - and we have brought in young hungry players who want to prove a point, and that is a great trait to have in a player.
"Everything in Connacht is going to be tough and hard, but the beauty about the people who work here is that they relish those challenges. So it is onwards and upwards. A lot to good work was done last year and we are trying to build on that
"It is important with a small squad that we do not get too many injuries and keep a clean bill of health, but if we do that, we are confident in our ability, confident in what we have here, and to get off to a good start would be a help."
Connacht v Harlequins: T Nathan, T O’Halloran, N Ta’auso, A Wynne, F Carr, I Keatley, C O’Loughlin, B Wilkinson, A Flavin, J Hagan, M Swift, B Upton, A Browne, J O’Connor (cpt ), M McComish. Replacements, R Sweeney (prop ), D Murphy, D Nolan, M McCarthy, R Ofisa, E Taylor, E Griffin, K Matthews, M Nikora, D Fanning, S Monahan, C Willis.
• Connacht Rugby has been boosted with the addition of a new fixture that sees them facing Manu Samoa. Although subject to final IRB approval, Connacht CEO Gerry Kelly is “99 per cent certain” the match will go ahead at the Sportsground on Tuesday, November 9. “Season tickets will be valid for this match and we are hoping that the midweek fixture will enable plenty of people who cannot make weekend games to attend.”