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Eric Elwood to realise European dream

How things have changed.

Whereas this time last year there was still much uncertainty surrounding Connacht’s future, now that commitment has been made by the IRFU to the western province there has already been tangible progress made with coach Eric Elwood’s enthusiasm and determination providing the catalyst for the current feel-good factor west of the Shannon.

Most notable of all, Connacht are about to make their Heineken Cup debut next week – courtesy of Leinster’s epic triumph last May – in Pool Six alongside Toulouse, Harlequins and Gloucester in what will be a massive challenge for Elwood’s squad and yet a goal the province has long strived to achieve after some notable success in the Challenge Cup.

Indeed, it’s taken 15 seasons in the Challenge Cup, along with a rule change, to finally earn a place at the European top table.

It’s a situation that Elwood is relishing despite his squad being smaller, and consequently weaker, than their blue riband opposition as well as the fact that the privilege of playing Heineken Cup rugby has been entirely down to another Irish side’s success.

Anyway, Elwood has overseen some decent PRO12 League results which now, after some recent narrow defeats, sees them sitting in eighth, one place above tomorrow’s opponents Ulster.

True, Connacht were arguably at an advantage over the World Cup period, with their squad remaining intact, but Elwood still deserves to be given credit for getting results – like Ulster they won their first three PRO12 games and then, unlike Ulster, have managed losing bonus points from three of their next four defeats – after a large swathe of last season’s players departed.

Still, he has retained the core of a decent side with the experienced John Muldoon, Mike McCarthy, Johnny O’Connor, Michael Swift, Ray Ofisa and Gavin Duffy all still on the books while Tongan World Cup player Fetu’u Vainkolo has been signed along, of course, with Ulster’s Niall O’Connor, TJ Anderson and Mark McCrea.

Belfast Telegraph