Irish rugby at a crossroads as Reds try to bring back fear factor
Champions Cup Round 3 kicked off in Belfast last night and despite Ulster's stunning victory, I don't think it stretching it to say we're at the crossroads.
Granted Munster have the maximum five-point return from their one game to date but on all recent evidence anything less than a four-point haul from Thomond Park this evening and with Leinster facing down a likely Toulon backlash tomorrow, Irish interest in pool qualification could be at an end practically if not quite mathematically.
From the high of Six Nations success to the low of our world cup exit to Argentina, it's been a dismal period. The rugby bubble may have been somewhat over-inflated anyway but for sure it was blown to smithereens that Cardiff day in mid-October.
Between poor form - individual and collective - plus an ever mounting injury list the fizz has gone of late. It is a dank, dour time of the year and the inconsistency of our professional elite has added to the patent doom and gloom.
Of course it's only a game and far be it for me to suggest otherwise but the welfare of the provinces does matter to Irish folk.
Added to that is the upcoming Six Nations. Does the form of the provinces matter in the lead in to the big kick off against Wales in Dublin on February 7? Of course it does and let nobody pretend otherwise.
And just for the record we have the most difficult opening schedule of the six this time around. Should we come up short against the Welsh we then face the French and English on the road in successive matches.
All for another day I know but unless we get the provinces firing then things could conceivably get a lot worse before they get any better. The need for provincial success to fuel the international tank is paramount.
To that end this evening's game in Limerick is massive. While taking nothing for granted the likelihood is that the iconic ground will be rocking for the first time in yonks.
For visiting teams, playing in Thomond has become akin to tackling Edinburgh at Murrayfield - an experience to look forward to rather than fear. Much has been said and written in praise of Connacht's magnificent win at Thomond but they knew that Munster were vulnerable and that game was winnable. And so it came to pass.
On the back of that result and accompanying performance Anthony Foley opened up the door to the fringe players against the Dragons in Newport. That display was even worse.
So while not quite back to the drawing board it is time to turn back the clock in terms of intensity and bread and butter basics. This squad is capable still of doing just that.
I was in attendance at both the Glasgow and Ulster games prior to Connacht and despite the pitiful crowds at each, those who were there were passionately involved because of the level of intensity on show in red.
If facing up to the unbeaten Leicester Tigers on a European night in Limerick doesn't put fire in the belly I don't know what does.
Having Conor Murray back is massive. In the hope that fire is raging all round, the Lions scrum-half brings an ice cool factor. You cannot buy that temperament.
And while it may be another issue for another day I would like to see Murray seriously considered for Irish captaincy (in succession to Paul O'Connell) going forward.
In the absence of Peter O'Mahony, CJ Stander is making a fair fist of the leadership role from No 8. I suspect he will be one of a number of new names when Joe Schmidt announces his preliminary Six Nations squad.
I hate the principle - three year residency rule - by which he, Richardt Strauss, Jared Payne and others qualify. That should at least be extended to five and even still I question the sincerity of the commitment to an adopted country which happens to be the place of temporary employment.
I hate the term 'designated project player'. Indeed in the last few days a quote from Leinster centre Ben Te'o (apparently English Premiership bound) summed the core mercenary attitude for me.
Already a Samoan international in rugby league the talented centre (and he is most definitely that) qualifies to play for England through the maternal side of his family.
"I'd love to play international rugby. I'm not sure for who, but I'd love to play it," he said.
"I want to test myself and I'd love to play in the biggest games, so that's something I will factor into my decision (whether or not to resign for Leinster)."
He is but one of many, but if anything sums up a qualification system gone bonkers whereby the lunatics have taken over the asylum it is this. You couldn't make it up.
Credit Te'o at least for his honesty when expressing that ambition, but is this where Test rugby is now at? And we thought the Granny/Plastic Paddy system of old had its flaws.
World Rugby needs to have a radical reassessment of the rules governing international qualification and now.
As one of many to have come through the school to club to province to country four-tier system it is a structure in which I vehemently believe.
I accept professionalism has moved the goalposts somewhat in that the game at the top puts the bulk of the gas in the tank for every strand below.
That said unless we continue to advance the cause of the provinces, chiefly through player availability allied to the spreading of relatively scarce resources, we are going to lose from the bottom up.
But back to matters immediate with Richard Cockerill and Paul Burke saying all the right things in terms of "expectation of the backlash" from Munster (following Connacht and the Dragons) as well as "rediscovering the old fire".
If Munster can achieve the latter then the former will follow as a matter of course. Think back to O'Connell's thumping tackle from Ronan O'Gara's hanging kick off on Sebastien Chabal aided and abetted by Donncha O'Callaghan and the rest of the Munster pack when Sale came to town with much the same credentials as Leicester do now.
It set the tone and the result followed as a matter of course. That, believe it or not, was nearly ten years ago but it is time for the new generation to make their mark.
I doubt they will ever have a better stage or better opportunity. The talking is over. Carpe diem.