Big freeze leaves provinces facing uphill task in Europe
There is much to admire about the modern game. Players are undoubtedly fitter, unquestionably stronger and, in some of the game's fundamentals -- chiefly passing and tackling -- much more adept than heretofore. Quite whether it all adds up to an end product easier on the eye I'm not so sure, but that is another argument for another day.
Today's players enjoy the benefits of ultra-modern stadia embracing carefully manicured playing surfaces. Kicking tees, as an example, are but one of today's essentials. Hard to believe, but I went through an entire playing career without using sand for goal-kicking, never mind such a technologically advanced piece of apparatus as a ball-holding tee.
Even in South Africa, on the bone-dry High Veldt, the onus was on the kicker to make his raised divot out of scorched earth. Administrative generosity prevailed and the bucket of sand eventually came but alas too late for those of us of a certain age. Certainly for this generation, the conditions governing training and playing are immeasurably better than what they once were.
Where our season ran from September to April (although generally it was sometime in March depending on when you were knocked out of your respective provincial cup), today July is the only real rugby-free month.
I used to love playing in September and, if your cup luck was in, April. In between, particularly from November through to March, it was pure misery, with underfoot conditions difficult, to say the least. Scientific and technological advancement has helped. Pitches now recover so much quicker than times past. And yet as we have discovered over the Christmas and New Year period, when old Mother Nature gets sufficiently angry, there is nothing we can do to keep the games flowing.
That said, I do believe there are lessons to be learned, not least for our four professional entities. Even in these tough financial times, the need to look into the viability of underground heating at our home provincial grounds is essential. I remember travelling to Millbrae in Ayr for a 'B' international, on December 3, 1976, and the game being transferred to Murrayfield on the morning of the match. The under-soil heating ensured the Edinburgh pitch was in pristine condition despite the Arctic conditions in Britain at the time. That was over three decades ago!
Given the ramifications in terms of lost revenue and lack of match practice ahead of Heineken Cup resumption, the need for some form of underground protection is paramount. If, as the meteorological experts suggest, this winter freeze is set to become the norm, then clearly a reliable Plan B is essential.
There is too the alternative option of a mid-season rugby break, say for six to eight weeks over the December and January period. While that's all very well in theory it's impractical in application, given the uniqueness of Irish sport, with neither soccer nor Gaelic Games being played during these months. That said, there is no reason why the club/amateur game (excluding schools) could not follow a similar line, starting mid-August and finishing in mid-June but embracing a Christmas break.
I have not the faintest idea what it would cost to install under-soil heating, whether at Ravenhill, the RDS, Thomond Park, or the Sportsground, but whatever the investment it would be money well spent.
Certainly, deprived of match practice, the Irish sides are at a disadvantage with knock-out qualification in Europe now entering the final straight. Michael Cheika's decision to run with a full-strength line-up against Ulster was timely in retrospect. Brian McLaughlin too made good use of the Northerners' clash with Munster in the New Year by giving his first-teamers game time, meaning the real victims of the weather are Tony McGahan and, to a lesser extent, Michael Bradley.
McGahan, who went with a second-string selection at Ravenhill, now finds himself in the position of seeing more than half his side for Saturday's crucial game away to Treviso go into battle without a match since December 20 against Perpignan, while Bradley's Connacht welcome Montpellier in the Challenge Cup on Friday without playing since December 26.
The Munster pack suffered a severe pummelling at scrum time in Ravenhill. Wian du Preez and Tony Buckley were tried and hanged on the back of it. It was a harsh if understandable analysis. The first port of call in search of scrum frailty is inevitably the front row. However, with the first-up back five (allowing Niall Ronan's re-inclusion for the injured Denis Leamy) returned in situ for the (abandoned) Scarlets game, McGahan saw in that encounter a chance to restore dented pride and confidence (for both beleaguered props) from that torrid Belfast experience.
Behind the scrum too he acknowledged form in the guise of Jean de Villiers and at the same time lack of it in the exclusion of the out-of-sorts Lifeimi Mafi. Unfortunately, with no further evidence to go on, he must now decide on which two from three he chooses for the Italian job. De Villiers has many strengths and his inclusion appeals to fans but there is justifiable concern that for the Springbok juggernaut, the midfield chemistry alongside Ronan O'Gara is not yet there.
On the left flank too, where Ian Dowling provides the most obvious balance, McGahan has been the epitome of fairness in looking to give the re-energisd Denis Hurley his chance to stay at No 11 for Treviso. Naturally, any player's main concern is with himself but as long as the system is seen to be fair and applied equally then the coach retains credibility. McGahan has some big calls still to make but last Sunday's selection, irrespective of the cancellation, has insured he does so with the understanding of all.