After 25 years of “living and breathing” Connacht Rugby, coach Eric Elwood has said it is time for a change.
In officially announcing last evening that he would step down at the end of the season, Elwood said his decision had nothing to do with any “issues” at Connacht Rugby, but for personal reasons.
“I have come to this decision after thinking long and hard about what is best for me and also what is best for Connacht. I have given a big part of my life to Connacht Rugby and I feel that it is time for me to have a change and time for the province to have a change as well.”
News of Elwood’s decision broke earlier this week after he informed his playing squad in an emotional meeting on Monday. Those close to the 43-years-old were hugely disappointed, but not entirely surprised, given his total dedication to the job he took on two seasons ago and his desire to spend time with his young family.
“I want to stress that this has nothing to do with any on field issues or performances or anything off the field. Connacht has progressed enormously in the last couple of years and I can only see that continuing, but for me personally the time is right to step aside at the end of this season and let someone else take things on.
“It is a decision that I have not made lightly and it's an emotional one, but again I would like to make it very clear that it is my decision and no-one elses. I have not been under any pressure to step down and I have always received great support from the IRFU, the Professional Game Board and everyone involved with Connacht.”
Since making his debut for his home province in 1989, Elwood has been at the forefront of Connacht Rugby as both a player and coach for 23 years, during which time he played 168 times for the province, won 35 caps for Ireland, and competed in two World Cups.
When he retired from playing, he moved into management alongside Michael Bradley before taking over as head coach - thus achieving a long cherished goal. In doing so he became the first Connacht native to coach the province since Declan McDermott - the man who gave him his first Connacht cap.
Many believe Elwood put Connacht back into the province and one of his first coaching sessions was on the Aran Islands. Since then Connacht have showed considerable improvement, achieving their best ever finish in the RaboDirect League last season, when they finished in eighth place, while also claiming an historic win over English champions Harlequins in their first foray into Heineken Cup rugby last season.
Chief executive Tom Sears said Eric Elwood was synonymous with Connacht Rugby.
“ He will leave a big void. His decision has come as a surprise, but it is one we respect and understand.”
Assistant coach Dan McFarland, who with Elwood coached the Ireland u-20s to a Grand Slam in 2006/2007, said his colleague’s departure would leave a huge vacuum in the province.
“Eric Elwood is a great man, not just in the context of Connacht Rugby, but in the context of life. He is great to work with, inspiring, challenging and single-minded in bettering Connacht Rugby.
“He has a love of Connacht, both the people and the place, that just rubs off on those around him. You only have to walk down Shop Street with him to understand that. He will leave a hole, but also a legacy of passion, determination and progression. Everyone can see that Connacht Rugby is on an upward curve, Eric has been at the front of that climb for 25 years.”
Connacht Rugby manager, Tim Allnutt, who also played alongside Elwood in both Galwegians and Connacht, said he was the heartbeat of Connacht Rugby for so long.
“Eric is inspirational - the heart and soul of Connacht. He has lived and breathed Connacht Rugby for nearly 25 years and has given his all to the game.
“While it is very disappointing that he will be leaving, we respect his decision - a decision that is right for himself and his family. Hopefully after a break, he will not be lost to the game because he has so much to give. He is one of the greats.”
Former CEO Gerry Kelly said Elwood’s decision was disappointing for Connacht Rugby, but also understandable.
“Anyone who knows Eric knows that he is very much a 24/7 365 days a year person and he found it difficult to get away from the job or even take time out - that is Eric. He is such a believer in Connacht.
“Eric Elwood’s statistics speak for themselves - in his number of games for the province, his international caps - a consummate professional both on and off the field. While still playing, he was also coaching youngsters, and I believe the rise in standard of Connacht’s u-20s is attributable to Eric.”
Tom Sears said Connacht Rugby would begin a recruitment process to “find someone who can build on the foundations he has put in place and take us to the next level”.
He said the search would be “comprehensive and global”.