Rugby in the West will enter a new era next month, as outgoing Chief Executive Gerry Kelly retires and Englishman Tom Sears takes over at the helm of Connacht Rugby.
Tom has been the CEO of Cricket Kenya for the past three years, but he says rugby has always been his first sporting love.
“My first job in sport was with the Rugby Football Union working with the England squad at Twickenham. I spent a couple of years there, working with people like Clive Woodward, John Mitchell and, obviously, people like Martin Johnson and Lawrence Dallaglio – the side that went through to win the 2003 World Cup,” he recalls.
A stint at Northampton Saints followed, before Mr Sears moved over to the cricket world in 2000. While rugby and cricket could not be more different on the field, there are, he says, similarities in running their governing organisations. Nonetheless, he is “really looking forward to getting back into rugby”.
“There are parallels between most sports organisations. I always played rugby and cricket ever since I was a kid, they were my two passions, so I’ve been really lucky to work in both and get experience in both. There are peculiarities to any sport that you work in but there are a lot of transferable skills and a lot of similarities,” he says.
During his time in Kenya and New Zealand before that, Mr Sears has kept a close eye on European Rugby, and particularly the Heineken Cup, which Connacht will again contest next season.
“When I saw the job come up, I started doing a fair bit of research on Connacht, and I actually went to the Ulster game towards the end of the season. There’s been fantastic progress over the last couple of years, and there’s tremendous potential to build on.”
Qualification for the Heineken Cup is, he says, “a massive boost” for the province, and no doubt makes his job a little easier as he takes over the business side of things at the Sportsground next month.
“Any side wants to play at the highest level possible and to get into the Heineken Cup, even though it was with a bit of assistance through Ulster and Leinster, it’s a fantastic boost for us,” says Mr Sears.
With a second season of Heineken Cup rugby ahead, whatever the circumstances, things are clearly headed in the right direction at the province, and Mr Sears doesn’t intend to impose radical changes across the board during his tenure.
“I know Gerry’s done a fantastic job and the Professional Game Board have done tremendous work in the period that they’ve been in place. It will be a case of me getting to know the club, the area, the market, Irish rugby, and European rugby, and working along with the people that have been there a fair bit longer than I have. Rather than radical change, it’ll be enhancing what’s already in place, I hope.”
A long-term plan is difficult to outline now, until he’s done a thorough assessment of things at the club, but continued improvement is his primary goal.
“In five years’ time we’d certainly hope to be qualifying on our own merit to the Heineken Cup in whatever format that takes place, and progressing further up the table of the RaboDirect Pro 12 or whatever competition is still in situ in five years’ time, and that’s got to be our goal – a year on year improvement on and off the field,” he says.
Kenya to Galway is a long journey and a bit of a culture shock, not to mention drastically different weather-wise. It’s a change Mr Sears is relishing, though.
“I’ve got a decent coat somewhere – I’ll have to dig it out because I don’t use it too often in Kenya! I’ve spent a little bit of time in the West of Ireland and, when I came over for my interview, I had a good look around Galway and the surrounding area, and it’s a beautiful part of the world, a fantastic place to live and I really can’t wait to get over there.”