Ireland send distress call to Elwood

David Hughes talks to a Lansdowne hero whose return will be relished
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The Independent Online
Never mind the green jersey or the No 10 emblazoned on it. When Eric Elwood enters Lansdowne Road today, you would half expect him to be attired in Roman tunic, complete with horse and chariot, akin to a modern day Richard Burton in his bravado entrance in Cleopatra. The damsel in distress is Irish rugby, which is most definitely screaming for help.

Elwood was on this horse and chariot in nearly identical circumstances two years ago. Two defeats down, two games to go. Cue the saviour, roll over Wales and roll over England. Hail the conquering Eric, that rarity in Irish rugby, an outside-half who has plotted back-to-back victories over the marauding Englanders. For the 1992 and 1993 battles, there were no sweet chariots swinging low.

So why was the conquering Eric omitted from the fray in the seasonal opener against England, and again two weeks ago for the Murrayfield dbcle? Ostensibly, the selectors said it was due to a lack of match fitness after an early-season ankle ligament injury, which limited him to three competitive games.

True, that must have been a contributory factor. But the same criteria was not applied to others. Additionally, due to the ceaseless rains of a particularly wet Irish winter, he has not played any meaningful matches since then either. No, the quite scandalous omission of Elwood goes deeper than that.

Had there been a third Test in the summer tour of Australia, Elwood would probably have been dropped in favour of the untried Alan McGowan. When Elwood's absence afforded McGowan that opportunity against the United States, he did not grasp it fully.

Nevertheless, the selectors retained the notion that Eric The Boot could not move an Irish back-line, and that he was stunting their growth. Meanwhile, Paul Burke had joined Cork Constitution, the club of the Irish manager, Noel Murphy, and his son-in-law - the Irish captain, Michael Bradley. Playing behind an awesome, all-powerful Munster pack, the technically correct Burke guided them to an inter-provincial grand slam. The selectors gambled on him, and the gamble backfired.

That the selectors' volte-face smacks of desperation is beyond dispute. The relationship between Elwood and the Irish coach, Gerry Murphy, is less than harmonious, and Elwood's recall followed a split vote amongst the archaic, five-man selection committee.

Burke is the latest casualty of a cataclysmic selection policy, which has also seen David Corkery, Niall Woods and Keith Wood abruptly jettisoned along the way. Established performers, such as Nick Popplewell, Peter Clohessy, Michael Bradley and Philip Danaher, have been excused for singularly failing to perform this season, amid suspicions of blind favouritism.

A season that promised so much has come apart at the seams. The single biggest factor has been the resignation of the assistant coach, Willie Anderson, to be replaced by the less popular Pat Whelan. Another problem is that in clinging to the amateur ethos, the ultra-conservative IRFU has failed to ensure its leading players keep pace with world trends in terms of professional preparation for matches.

Anderson tried hard, and the players miss him. One reputedly implored him to come back, while others admitted privately after Murrayfield that Elwood constituted the next best thing to a knight in shining armour.

It is not just that he was more likely to have kicked those crucial first- half penalties that went begging in Murrayfield, that he would have tackled Rob Andrew earlier and harder in the run-up to Will Carling's crucial opening try at Lansdowne Road, or that generally he would have tested the English and Scottish defences in a way that Burke never did, it is partly because of his chatty, self-confident personality. Once more, he could be the fillip the team need.

The Australian tour apart, Elwood is one of those rare players whose level of performance actually improves the higher he climbs. His place- kicking is markedly better for Ireland than it has ever been in decidedly flawed careers with Galwegians, Lansdowne and Connacht.

Part of the problem was temperament. When Connacht employed a sports psychologist, P J Smith of Limerick University, Elwood was the squad's most responsive member. It transpired that he was too laid back for his own good before games, with the result that the kick-off and events that followed came as a jolt to his system.

For example, when Elwood was selected to play for Connacht against the All Blacks at the age of 19, the referee informed the Connacht management 15 minutes before kick-off that the outside-half could not play - at least not with his boots in such a sorry state. Running repairs were conducted in the toilets.

Part of the flaw was also technical. But the hard-working Elwood is deadly earnest when it comes to making the most of the natural talents he was born with: witness the improvements in his previously error-prone restarts.

The likelihood is that he will primarily be employed to take whatever ball comes his way, either kicking it high or to the corners, and land his penalties. Just get the Irish a win, Eric. Any old win will do.