The Eric Elwood era begins in earnest on Saturday when Connacht open their season with a home Magners League fixture against the Newport Gwent Dragons (5.30pm ).
There is a sense of anticipation surrounding Connacht, which for the first time in more than 20 years is headed by a home-grown coach, but, as always, there remains unease as Connacht still boasts the smallest squad, the smallest stadium, and the fewest number of international players, coupled with one-year contracts and an IRFU review that has yet to be resolved.
However Elwood and his new management team are practical in their expectations this season. While Heineken Cup rugby remains the “ultimate”, Elwood has set what he believes are more realistic targets - improvements in performance both home and away.
“There are no crazy targets,” he insists. “ I would like to have a Connacht team that is recognised as competitive, and is consistent in performances both home and away. If we get those two performance levels up, are more competitive and consistent, and we are scoring more tries and not leaking as much, then we will be a hard team to beat home or away.
“I want people to look at the Connacht team and say ‘yeah’ - they not only respect us at home, but I’d like them to respect us away from home also.”
The reputation of the Magners League has grown, and this year, with the addition of two Italian sides, it has become even more challenging. And the opening against the Newport Gwent Dragons is a match that is expected to be highly competitive between two sides that have traditionally been classed as underdogs in their respective countries.
The Dragons enjoyed unexpected success last year, finishing ahead of the Scarlets to grab Heineken Cup status, and this year coach Paul Turner, winner of the Magners League Coach of the Year award, has continued to build his squad with some astute signings. Matthew Jones has returned to Wales from Worcester, while Scott Morgan and Rob Sowden-Taylor joined from the Cardiff Blues.
Like Elwood, Turner is looking to improve the Dragons’ away form.
“I certainly have ambitions for the squad this year - it is still only small, but at this moment we are looking to improve our away form. Last year we created a bit of style and played a lot of good football, but you have to be able to tie up games that are in the balance. Going to Connacht is always difficult - you have to do the right things at those places and in reality we have not done it in years gone by - that’s got to change.”
Traditionally this fixture has gone Connacht's way, Eric Elwood is "craving" to start his reign with a victory.
“There is no real pedigree going into the game as it’s the first, so it’s more evenly balanced this time. That said, being the first game, we would like get off to a good start. History says we have every chance of getting that, but it’s going to be a tough one and it’s difficult to call.
“It’s not going to make or break the season, but it gives you the confidence ahead of the next two away games. Yes, I am putting pressure on to win this game. We know we are capable, we know we are good enough, and that’s the way we are approaching it.”
Captain John Muldoon is a huge loss to the side, but Elwood says it is an opportunity for others to take over the leadership role.
“We are missing our talisman, our captain, a very influential player who had stood up to the mark, and got his recognition with his selection for Ireland. But we have been talking about developing leaders in the squad, so we are hoping some of the other guys take that mantle on Saturday. We are going to have injuries throughout the season, and we expect people to step up - now is the opportunity.”
Although Elwood is likely to utilise his most experienced players on Saturday, he remains excited with some of the younger prospects.
“ Everyone know knows of Fionn Carr, Ian Keatley, and Sean Cronin. Now I am looking at the next batch - like Eoin Griffin, Tiernan O’Halloran and Eoin McKeown. These are young Connacht home-grown players, and we have to show faith in them and give them game time and exposure in the Magners and the Amlin. We also have Darragh Fanning and Shane Monaghan who are still only 21 and 22, so it’s a huge shop window for them. It’s a tough league to cut your teeth, but I firmly believe these lads are good enough and they will get their chances.”
After improving displays in their two pre-season losses, Elwood is looking for another step up in performance on Saturday.
“We have done a lot of work on unstructured play. We want to move the ball around, we want to play attacking open rugby and create opportunities in attack where both forwards and backs are comfortable with the ball in hand. Conversely we have been working on our defence because the game is all about attack in defence and the transition from one to to the other. We have got to be ruthless in defence, not leak soft tries, and if people are going to score against us, then they must earn it.”