Following a sensational 34-6 RaboDirect Pro12 win over Leinster at the Sportsground last week, Elwood feels it’s time to put their bleak past to bed in Belfast. Certainly, Connacht will no longer be intimidated, either by reputation or the boisterous Belfast crowd because Elwood’s team finally appears to have cracked the puzzle of how to play in front of decent crowds.
At home, Connacht regularly attract crowds of 5,000 which swells to near 10,000 for Heineken Cup matches.
“It’s a massive boost because there’s nothing worse playing in a near empty stadium,” said Elwood.
“It’s huge for us. You just feel there is that obligation to perform because you have loyal support. We aspire to keep the brand going and we’ve started something but it will take time. I admire Munster and Leinster, particularly Munster have created a monster in Thomond Park and Leinster can now fill the Aviva Stadium, which is terrific. We all know well about Ravenhill.
“We’ve started something, it’s growing and building, my task is to do my job on the pitch and there are many good people working hard off the pitch. If we can marry those two things together and build the support base, it would be great but I suppose it’s up to us now to perform on a consistent basis and it starts again in Belfast.”
Even at the risk of the Leinster result being a one-off, Elwood figures Connacht have made and will continue to make steady progress.
“I think we’re evolving. We’re learning. Remember, we’re playing against teams that are often stacked with internationals. We’re asking young guys to produce against more experienced individuals and teams. But part of their development process is that steep learning curve. We beat Zebre with a team that had a total of less than 30 international caps while they had something like 380 caps.
“Even at that level, we don’t make excuses for it. We love that challenge but they are the facts and we’re going up to Ulster against a team with goodness knows how many caps. That experience tends to help win tight games. That experience, that physicality, can eventually wear you down but to date with our young players and the changes we’ve made, we have been okay. It’s about building on what we did the last day.”
The next day is nigh and Elwood concedes tonight will be another test of character for his team.
“Ulster are terrific, we know how difficult it is to win up there, but hopefully we can build on last week.”
His counterpart Mark Anscombe has made four changes for what will be an emotional occasion — their first home game since the tragic passing of young Nevin Spence. Tommy Bowe plays his first game with Ulster in four years, while Rory Best, Chris Henry and Paddy Wallace all come back to strengthen the team.
Brett Wilkinson, Ronan Loughney, Dave Gannon and former Ulster flanker Willie Faloon all return for Connacht and Faloon is honoured with the captaincy.
ULSTER: J Payne; T Bowe, D Cave, P Wallace, A Trimble; P Jackson, P Marshall; T Court, R Best, J Afoa, J Muller (captain), D Tuohy, S Ferris, N Williams, C Henry.
Replacements: R Herring, C Black, A Macklin, L Stevenson, M McComish, M Heaney, L Marshall, C Gilroy.
CONNACHT: R Henshaw; T O’Halloran, E Griffin, D McSharry, F Vainikolo; D Parks, K Marmion; B Wilkinson, A Flavin, R Loughney; M Swift, M McCarthy; D Gannon, G Naoupu, W Faloon (captain).
Replacements: J Harris-Wright, D Buckley, N White, J Muldoon, J O’Connor, D Moore, M Nikora, M Fifita.