Tag Archives: Eric Elwood

Connacht Look For 3rd-in-a-Row

Frank Murphy pass

Frank Murphy spins a pass away during Connacht's 26-21 win over Ulster last weekend. (c) Eoin Gardiner.

This week’s IRUPA Player and Young Player of the Season shortlists unsurprisingly failed to include a Connacht player. Ronan Loughney was included on the Medal for Excellence shortlist alongside Shane Jennings and Mick O’Driscoll. That award is basically the ‘Unsung Hero’ prize. Check out the full shortlists for all the awards here.

Surely the lists in the main competitions could have been extended to four to include a player from Connacht, seeing as every other province is represented? Mike McCarthy, Brett Wilkinson, Gavin Duffy and Loughney have been ever-present and instrumental in all of the big Connacht performances this season. In the Young Player category, Tiernan O’Halloran’s superb season deserves mention.

Anyway, Eric Elwood and his squad will be unconcerned ahead of a weekend where they can earn a 3rd consecutive win in the PRO12 . They host Aironi in the Sportsground tomorrow evening (17.00 KO). If they win, it will be their second best run of form since this competition took on the current league format back in 2003/04. That season, Connacht won 4 games on the trot (Borders, Glasgow, Llanelli and Borders again, for the record). Since then, the best they have managed in the league is two wins in a row.

It’s been a rough ride for Connacht rugby since the Celtic/Magners/PRO12  league’s inception. They have finished in the bottom two positions for seven consecutive seasons. That 4-game run in ’03/04 helped them to 9th of 12 teams, their best-ever final standing since the competition became one league. In the two seasons prior to ’03/04, the tournament was split into two pools of 8, with the top 4 teams in each pool entering the quarter-finals.

Connacht v Munster

Connacht rugby has always been overshadowed by its provincial rivals. (c) Eoin Gardiner.

Both those seasons were particularly successful for Connacht as they reached the quarter-finals in consecutive campaigns, losing to Glasgow in ’01/02 and Munster in ’02/03. In that ’02/03 season, Connacht even had a 5-game winning run (Borders, Cardiff, Leinster, Newport and Bridgend that time). Those seem like relative glory days compared with what the western province’s fans have been watching since. However, as I have mentioned before and truly believe, the signs from Connacht this season have been positive.

Tomorrow’s game at home to Aironi is one that Elwood’s men simply have to be winning if they are to continue moving forward. They are a better team than Aironi and their performance needs to show the confidence that has been building in the second half of this season, highlighted by wins over Harlequins and Ulster. If Connacht can manage to win both of their remaining fixtures (the final one is away to the Warriors) then they have a strong chance of a best-ever 8th-placed finish.

If that is achieved, coupled with a first Heineken Cup win in their debut season, this campaign will have represented superb progress for the province. Elwood has managed to blood some exciting young talent this season in the likes of Eoin Griffin, Dave McSharry, O’Halloran and Denis Buckley. Ireland U20s’ fullback Shane Layden will hope to join those ranks next season. The signings of Nathan White, Dan Parks and Willie Faloon will certainly add quality to Elwood’s squad too.

Ruan Pienaar

The Connacht defence smothers Ruan Pienaar during the win over Ulster. (c) Eoin Gardiner.

The hope for Irish rugby is that either Ulster or Leinster wins the Heineken Cup, thereby ensuring qualification for Connacht again. Elwood would be better prepared to balance his squad at the second time of asking. This season, Connacht were often stretched, playing largely the same team from week to week. That effected their PRO12 form, manifested in the inability to see out games from winning positions.

Another positive is that Connacht will field an ‘A’ team in the British and Irish Cup for the first time next season. That means decent exposure for more of the province’s Academy and underage players. Furthermore, Connacht are exempt from the IRFU’s succession strategy, which will soon limit the number of Non-Irish Qualified players at the other three provinces. Elwood and his management team will have few restrictions as they aim to bring Connacht rugby to a new level in the coming years.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Small steps at a time, inch by inch; that’s the way. It all starts with securing a 3rd consecutive PRO12 win tomorrow in Galway. That would represent clear, statistical progress. Do that and focus will turn to the Warriors, where a win could mean a best-ever finish. It’s impossible to say for certain where Connacht will go from there, but I’m optimistic.

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Photos courtesy: Eoin Gardiner.

PRO12 Play-Off Race

RaboDirect Pro12

It's going to be an exciting final three weekends in the PRO12. (c) Sum_of_Marc.

With just three games remaining in the regular PRO12 season, there are still 6 sides with a realistic chance of securing one of the four play-off positions. Leinster and Munster currently occupy two of those slots, with Ulster just a point off 4th place. It’s widely agreed that the PRO12 throws up some poor games mid-season, but at this stage there’s plenty on the line in each of the remaining fixtures. At the other end of the table, the fact that relegation is not an issue means Connacht have nothing but pride to play for.

Let’s take a closer look at each of the Irish province’s league run-ins and rate their chances of qualifying for the play-offs. Three Irish sides in the semi-finals for the second year running would be a brilliant achievement, and further underline our dominance of this league.

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Leinster

Cardiff vs. Leinster

Leinster come off the back of their brilliant 34-3 win over the Blues. (c) Ken Bohane.

Current Position: 1st     Points: 68     Remaining Fixtures: Edinburgh (H), Ulster (A), Dragons (A).

Coming into this weekend, Leinster have a ten point lead at the top of the table. Barring a complete disaster (losing all three remaining games without bonus points) they are likely to remain at the summit of the league. A win tonight against Edinburgh at the RDS would make the trip to Ravenhill the following week less important. That Ulster game comes the weekend before the H-Cup semis, so Joe Schmidt may rest some of his front-liners.

Two wins from three would secure top spot for Leinster, while even one win and two losing bonus points might do. The fact that they have only lost 3 of their 19 fixtures so far means Leinster can relax a little more than the other PRO12 sides. It’s difficult for Leinster to put out a weak side these days with so much competition in their squad (just look at tonight’s team). They will confirm top spot and a home semi-final, possibly against Munster or Ulster. What a way to finish the season that would be!

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Munster

Ulster's lineout copy

Munster are looking to bounce back from defeat to Ulster last weekend. (c) Ivan O'Riordan.

Current Position: 3rd     Points: 56     Remaining Fixtures: Warriors (H), Scarlets (A), Ulster (H).

Munster are two points behind 2nd-placed Ospreys coming into tomorrow’s crucial clash with the Warriors in Musgrave Park. The Scottish side are level on points with Munster, but sit 4th because they have won a game less. Tony McGahan will have to ensure that his side forget about their Heineken Cup disappointment and focus on their potentially tricky PRO12 run-in. The objective will be to finish 2nd. The Ospreys’ run-in looks a little less difficult than Munster’s, with Cardiff away and the Dragons at home next for them. They finish away to Aironi in what will be the Italian side’s last ever fixture. I can see the Italians winning that one.

McGahan and his squad now face three games against direct play-off challengers. Munster are in poor form, having lost three of their last four games in all competitions. They need to bounce back immediately with a win tomorrow, before travelling to the Scarlets. The final regular season game sees a rematch of last weekend’s H-Cup quarter-final with Ulster. Pushing the northern province out of the play-off spots at the final hurdle would be sweet revenge. I’m going for Munster to finish 2nd, level on points with the Ospreys but with one more win than the Welsh side. Here’s the Munster team to face the Warriors.

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Ulster

Simon Zebo Munster's try scorer copy

Ulster now face important games in two competitions. (c) Ivan O'Riordan.

Current Position: 5th     Points: 55     Remaining Fixtures: Connacht (A), Leinster (H), Munster (A).

Ulster’s Heineken Cup progress has been superbly impressive and it will be hard for them to re-focus on the PRO12 after last weekend’s thrilling win over Munster. They travel to Galway tomorrow for a game in which Connacht will fancy their chances. As expected, Brian McLaughlin has made wholesale changes to his team and it remains to be seen how strong Ulster’s second string is. Three inter-provincial derbies is not the ideal way to finish the league season, especially since two of them have play-off ambitions of their own.

It’s quite conceivable that Ulster will lose all three of these games. A Heineken Cup final would be the most perfect consolation. I’m not writing Ulster out of the play-offs just yet, but McLaughlin hasn’t been in this position, balancing his squad out across two competitions at this late stage, before. I can see them  beating Connacht tomorrow but losing narrowly to Leinster and Munster. Ideally, they beat Leinster too and we get three PRO12 semi-finalists. My prediction at this stage is Ulster missing out on the play-offs by a single point.

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Connacht

ST vs Connacht-34

Connacht can jump a couple of positions up the table with a strong finish. (c) Pierre-Selim.

Current Position: 10th     Points: 29     Remaining Fixtures: Ulster (H), Aironi (H), Warriors (A).

Connacht’s win away to the Dragons last time out was impressive enough to suggest that they will finish the season strongly. They will be keeping an eye on the Heineken Cup too, in the hope that either Leinster or Ulster can win it and secure a 4th qualifier for the Irish sides. The PRO12 is clearly divided into two halves by mid-table side the Blues. In the bottom half, the Dragons, Treviso, Connacht and Edinburgh look to be battling to finish 8th. Connacht’s run-in is quite testing, starting with the visit of Ulster tomorrow (team here).

I can see Connacht taking losing bonus points from Ulster and the Warriors as well as beating Aironi in Galway. If the teams around them play to form, that would probably mean Connacht remaining in 10th. However, the bottom of the table is hard to predict, with these sides’ wins coming out of the blue. Connacht’s final match of the season is away to the Warriors. They could do Ulster and Munster a massive favour by beating the Scottish side. That would probably see Ulster into the play-offs, as well as Connacht into 8th.

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How do you see the remaining three series of fixtures panning out? Do you think we’ll have three Irish sides in the play-offs again? Can Connacht finish out their season with a couple of wins? Comment below with all your views and predictions! I’m going for Leinster, Munster, Ospreys and Warriors in that order for the play-offs and Connacht remaining in 10th at the other end.

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Photos courtesy: Sum_of_Marc, Ken Bohane, Ivan O’Riordan, Pierre-Selim.

Positive Signs From Connacht

Connacht Rugby

Connacht have recovered well from a tough mid-season run. (c) Pierre-Selim.

There’s been plenty of good news from the West in recent times. The coup of Leinster’s Nathan White last month was followed up by the capture of experienced outhalf Dan Parks. Equally positive is the revelation that all four of Dave Gannon, Paul O’Donohoe, Dave Moore and Kyle Tonetti have extended their contracts beyond the end of this season.

Earlier in the campaign, the highly promising trio of Tiernan O’Halloran, Eoin Griffin and Dave McSharry tied themselves to their home province for at least another two seasons. It’s a hugely encouraging sign that these ambitious prospects want to be part of a progressing Connacht.

Unfortunately, it’s been a frustrating campaign for Elwood and his squad to date. Their infamous 14-game losing streak from the end of September until mid-January wasn’t a totally fair reflection of their performances. Of those 14 games, only 5 were lost by more than 10 points, and came against powerhouses like Toulouse, Munster and Ulster. Many of the losses came by narrow margins, due to the lack of accuracy in Connacht’s finishing and an inability to close out winning positions.

That’s not to excuse the bad run, a loss is still very much a loss and there were some poor displays along the way. Momentum is a vital factor in any league and not just in regard to winning. Anyone involved in a side racking up consecutive losses will know that the momentum of losing can be hard to stop. Connacht did it manfully, with their heroic 9-8 Heineken Cup win over quarter-final chasing Harlequins. That night at the Sportsground will never be forgotten in Galway.

O'Halloran has signed on for at least another two years. (c) Pierre-Selim.

The fact that Connacht were in the Heineken Cup at all was certainly a contributing factor to their poor PRO12 form. Compared to the massive squads at Munster, Ulster and Leinster, Elwood’s player base is small. The combined demands of the PRO12 and HC stretched the squad. The coach had very little room for rotation, making minimal changes from week to week. Big efforts and narrow misses in Pool 1 against Harlequins away, and both ties with Gloucester took a lot out of the players.

The signings of Parks and White could make an influential difference next season. New Zealander White has been impressive in his 16 appearances for Leinster this season. He will add leadership on and off the pitch, as well as strong scrummaging at tighthead. With Brett Wilkinson packing down at loosehead and the likes of Ronan Loughney, Rodney Ah You and Dylan Rogers providing cover and competition, Connacht look like being well-stocked in the front-row for next season.

Parks is an interesting acquisition, but the deal makes sense. At 33, concerns will be raised that Parks is past it as this level. However, age is not really a concern here. Much like Ronan O’Gara, Parks’ playing style and strengths have never been reliant on physical attributes. He will kick the corners to put Connacht into good positions, he will release his outside backs when it’s on, and most crucially, he will take any points on offer.

The Scot is the all-time record scorer in the PRO12/Celtic League with 1338 points in his 128 games since 2003. This season, he has kept his rate up with 75 points in 9 games for the Blues. Parks’ reliable boot is what Connacht have missed at times this season. Niall O’Connor has done well in patches, but too many times Connacht have come away from good territory with nothing to show on the scoreboard. Parks will convert a high percentage of any penalties on offer and if nothing’s on, will try the drop goal.

Parks Penalty

Parks will convert territory and possession into points. (c) Simon Williams.

White and Parks should improve the team next season and if Elwood can add one or two more players of decent quality, Connacht will be heading into next season with higher expectations. With the young players hopefully continuing to improve, Connacht will hope for a Leinster, Munster or Ulster Heineken Cup win and the top-tier European qualification that would bring.

For now the focus is on a strong finish to the PRO12 season. Connacht sit 10th coming into tomorrow evening’s clash with Munster in Galway. There’s 5 games left including this derby, and Connacht can rise up the table with a good run. Munster at home, Dragons away, then Ulster and Aironi at home will all look like winnable fixtures to Elwood and his management team.

9th is the highest Connacht have ever finished in this league. Treviso in 8th are only 5 points ahead and that should be the target. 4 wins from the 5 in these remaining games would also allow the western province to equal their record for most amounts of wins in a league season, set at 8 all the way back in 2003/04. It’s a big ask but certainly achievable. Time to ‘front up, rise up’.

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Photos courtesy: Simon WilliamsPierre-Selim.

PRO12 Returns

RaboDirect Pro12

The PRO12 returns to the foreground this weekend. (c) Sum_of_Marc.

With the Six Nations done and dusted, it’s time for the provincial game to take the front seat again. Many supportes will be delighted to get back to supporting their home team, especially after the inconsistent Irish displays over the last couple of months. With only 5 games left until the play-offs, Leinster, Munster and Ulster are all well in contention while Connacht are hoping to rise as high as possible in the table. Even with the Irish internationals getting a precious weekend off, there are plenty of big names to whet the appetite.

Leinster are first up on Friday night against the Ospreys. They welcome Brian O’Driscoll and Leo Cullen back into the fold after recovery from shoulder and achilles injuries respectively. The initial prognosis on BOD after his surgery in November was that he could miss the remainder of the season. The fact that he is back already speaks volumes for the man. He is a legend of the game and will play a huge part as Leinster look for PRO12 and Heineken Cup glory.

Captain Cullen coming back into the mix on the same day that Brad Thorn is set to make his Leinster debut is more good news. Leinster have been stretched for numbers in the second-row department in recent times, but now look well-stocked. Thorn’s obvious pedigree should help Leinster maintain, and possibly improve, the high standards they have set for themselves over the last few years.

Drico is back for Leinster, rejoice! (c) Art Widak.

On Saturday afternoon Ulster are in Italy to take on Treviso. Sitting 5th, just one place off the play-offs, Brian McLaughlin’s men face a tough run-in. This Treviso game and Aironi at home the weekend after are must-wins. Ulster’s final three games are away to Connacht, home to Leinster and away to Munster. Not ideal. After a good first half to the season Treviso have faded away and are no longer in contention for the play-offs. Clearly, a win for Ulster is essential.

Darren Cave and captain Johann Muller make their returns from injury to give Ulster a lift. Cave’s foot injury was unfortunately-timed in the build-up to the Six Nations as he was in excellent form. He’ll be looking to pick right up where he left off in a bid to secure a place on Ireland’s tour to New Zealand this summer.

Finally, on Saturday evening it’s the big derby in Galway, Connacht vs. Munster. Tony McGahan’s side come into the game placed 2nd, on course for a home play-off. Connacht are at the other end of the scale in 10th, just 5 points off the bottom. It would appear that Munster have more to play for, but this is exactly the type of game that Eric Elwood and his team will have targeted for a win. Expect another ferocious battle in front of a capacity crowd at the Sportsground.

Tomas O'Leary scored a great individual try copy

O'Leary is back for Munster's derby with Galway. (c) Ivan O'Riordan.

There’s been plenty of positive news coming from Connacht relating to next season’s squad, which we will look at in more depth over the next few days. For now, minds will be focused on this term’s run-in. Elwood will be keen to at least match last year’s 9th-place finish and 7 wins. With only 4 wins registered up to this point, a good finishing streak is needed. Home fixtures against Munster, Aironi and Ulster offer hope, as well as the clash away to the Dragons. Here’s the Connacht team.

Munster will be unconcerned with aiding their nieghbours’ positive finale to the season. They are focused on securing that crucial home spot for the play-offs in May. Ireland squad members Damian Varley and Tomas O’Leary are involved this weekend. O’Leary will be keen to get straight back into action after his involvement at Twickenham. Meanwhile, David Wallace and Felix Jones both continue their resurgence after long-term injuries.

The underestimated PRO12 is often demeaned as a dull league when pitted against the Heineken Cup and Six Nations. However, it’s vitally important to the game in Ireland, and gives our talented youngsters a chance to get on the pitch. With just 5 games left, Leinster look safe at the top of the table. Behind them, there are 6 teams, including Munster and Ulster, with realistic hopes of a play-off place. Further down, a successful run-in for Connacht could give them their best-ever final position. Plenty of reasons to tune in.

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Friday 23rd March

Leinster vs. Ospreys @ The RDS. Kickoff – 19.05 (RTE2)

Saturday 24th March

Treviso vs. Ulster @ Stadio di Monigo. Kickoff – 15.15 (BBCNI)

Connacht vs. Munster @ Sportsgrounds. Kickoff – 19.45 (TG4)

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Photos courtesy: Sum_of_Marc, Ivan O’Riordan, Art Widak.

RaboDirect Round-Up

PRO12 Round 14 Matches

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Leinster 42-8 Treviso 

Thursday 9th February @ The RDS

Leinster

Shane Jennings and Richardt Strauss helped Leinster to a win over Treviso at the RDS. (c) Ken Bohane.

Leinster lead the PRO12 by ten points after their fourth try-scoring bonus point win of the season. You can read the full match report on the Treviso game here. The Italians gave Leinster a tough battle in the first-half, but in the end tries from Ian Madigan, Richardt Strauss, Isa Nacewa, John Cooney and Fionn Carr allowed Joe Schmidt’s side to pull well clear. Man of the Match Nacewa added 17 points from the tee as part of a truly complete individual performance.

Carr, Madigan and Shane Jennings all had strong showings while the young centre partnership of Collie O’Shea and Brendan Macken, 21 and 20 respectively, gave plenty of promising signs. With eight games left before the PRO12 play-offs, Leinster continue to look good for a home quarter-final. Next up, they welcome the 7th-placed Scarlets to the RDS on Friday .

Here’s the highlights of the Leinster vs. Treviso game:

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Ulster 30-12 Dragons

Friday 10th February @ Ravenhill

Ulster move up to 5th in the table after their fourth consecutive bonus point win at Ravenhill. Crucially, Brian McLaughlin’s men are now only 2 points behind 4th-placed Munster, although the southern province do have a game in hand. Friday night’s win didn’t see Ulster dominate but they still had far too much for a poor Dragons side. Get the full match report here. Tries from Robbie Diack, Ruan Pienaar, Craig Gilroy and Stefan Terblanche did the damage for Ulster. Pienaar added 10 points with the boot.

The second try, started and finished by Pienaar, showed Ulster at their best with the ball flashing through 10 pairs of hands as they attacked from inside their own half. It’s well worth a look below. That passage of play will have been particularly pleasing for Brian McLaughlin in a week that brought the public revelation of Ulster’s long-standing decision not to renew his contract as coach for next season. McLaughlin remains focused on the job though, and Ulster’s play-off push continues away to the Cardiff Blues on Friday.

Here’s the four Ulster tries against the Dragons:

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Cardiff Blues 22-15 Connacht

Friday 10th February @ Cardiff Arms Park

The Scrum Collapses

Connacht lost to the Blues in Cardiff. (c) Sum_of_Marc.

In their first match since the historic 9-8 win over Harlequins last month, Connacht reverted to old habits as they failed to take several try-scoring opportunities in Cardiff. Tries from Tiernan O’Halloran and Dave Moore, as well as a conversion and penalty from the boot of Niall O’Connor, weren’t enough to get a win against the Blues. However, the losing bonus point gained through Moore’s late try sees Connacht move up a place in the PRO12 table.

O’Halloran put in another promising display on the wing, scoring one and setting up the other try. Coach Eric Elwood will have felt a familiar frustration though as Connacht failed to finish off some good breaks throughout the game. On Saturday, the western province host Glasgow Warriors at the Sportsground. Elwood will be keen to ensure his side don’t go back on a run of losses. Connacht sit 10th in the table now, with Edinburgh just 5 points ahead in 9th. A few wins in the remainder of the season will be the target.

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Aironi vs. Munster

Postponed

Rugby Snow

Ireland vs. France wasn't the only fixture disrupted because of the cold weather last weekend. (c) Olivier Pechenet.

Munster’s game in northern Italy was postponed due to the freezing weather in the region. Aironi’s Stadio Zaffanella was heavily covered with snow all week, forcing the game to be rescheduled. This fixture will now take place on the 11th of March.

Glasgow Warriors’ win over the Scarlets on Thursday sees them jump above Munster in the table. Sitting 4th, Munster do have a game in hand. Despite, the disruption to their schedule, Tony McGahan has refocused his side’s attention to Saturday, when Munster travel to Italy to take on Benneton Treviso.

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Here’s the latest PRO12 table:

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Photos courtesy:  Ken Bohane, Olivier Pechenet, Sum_of_Marc.