Listless Leinster will come undone in Heineken group
Blues are in decline and impatient fans will start voting with their feet, writes George Hook
One suspects that Munster or Leinster versus the Mercy Convent, Ballinamuck would be a sell-out. Last night, a packed Aviva Stadium had 50,000 paying spectators watch two under-strength provinces play in a minor competition.
Meanwhile, in Scotland vast swathes of empty seats demonstrated that an average of just 3,000 Scotsmen are prepared to pay for the privilege of watching their standard-bearers in action. Even in Italy, where the game is a mewling infant compared to soccer, the Treviso franchise can entice twice that number through the turnstiles.
Munster's four games before last night had under 7,000 for two matches in Scotland, 8,400 for Aironi in Musgrave Park and 18,000 for the Ospreys in Thomond Park. Irish spectators will, it appears, watch any standard of rugby.
Attendances in Scotland and Wales are little different from the amateur era, whereas the professional game has multiplied crowds in Ireland 20-fold. There is a simple reason for the growth in crowds. A decade of success at provincial and national level has been the catalyst for people to turn up in droves when they would not cross the road to see their local club in the All-Ireland League.
However, if the powers that be were so certain of a continued growth in support for the game, they would not have settled for a stadium that is too small for current requirements but is probably right for Irish teams that are staffed by ordinary mortals rather than the gods of the last decade. The four Heineken Cup games before Christmas will be the litmus test of support for the game over the next 10 years.
If Sky pundit Stuart Barnes is to be believed, Leinster's season could be over next week if they lose to Racing Metro at the RDS. He may not be too far wrong. Munster and Leinster have both lost at home before and gone on to qualify. However, this year's groups either prove that the seeding system is nonsense or the standard of the competition is higher than ever before. The former would appear to be the culprit because Pools Two and Three are clearly the most challenging of the six.
Ulster, meanwhile, despite playing unimaginative rugby, have a real chance of qualifying as best losers in a group that includes bad travellers Biarritz, unpredictable Bath and Italian pushovers Aironi. If London Irish can keep the Celtic moniker, then Ulster might do better as Belfast Springboks.
The northern province will be largely unaffected by Declan Kidney's requirements and Friday night showed just how dependent the men in white have become on mercenaries. Willie Anderson and David Irwin must be turning, happily not in their graves but over their Ulster fry. Nevertheless, were Ravenhill to become a Friday night fortress once more, it would be welcomed by everybody east of the Shannon.
However, back to Leinster. Two of their opponents are coached by fiercely aggressive and proven competitors. Racing Metro boss Pierre Berbizier has been slapped with a 60-day suspension for his outburst regarding referee Christophe Berdos. Saracens director of rugby Brendan Venter has an equally undistinguished record of clashing with authority. One can assume that their teams will be similarly hard-nosed.
Venter believes the depth in his squad will make them serious contenders for the Heineken Cup this season as they return to the European top flight after a two-season absence and looking to do better than their 2008 semi-final showing. Venter made his case thus: "We're a better-prepared outfit than we were last year. Our biggest strength is that we've got a lot of depth now. We've got a lot of players who can play for Saracens now on rotation and on form. We had a philosophy last year that a squad wins a championship, not a team. I think that's the case even more so now."
The Saracens coach has a team that could dominate a Leinster pack that looks decidedly undernourished.
Racing are the Top 14 co-leaders in France and present Leinster with a difficult opening, followed by an imposing trip to Wembley against Saracens. If Leinster's opponents are led by tough guys, the jury is clearly out on Joe Schmidt. His view on French teams is interesting.
"In the Six Nations, France did it across the board and yes, they did show some real ball skills. They played really well but I thought where they really dominated was in the set-pieces, particularly at the scrums," he said.
"Leinster couldn't access the game in Toulouse; Munster couldn't access the game against Biarritz. They both got shut out by the superb set-pieces of the French, which some of the teams over here have. That is something to think about for the Irish."
The opening matches have shown that he has failed to solve the set-piece problem, although the lineout is a bigger problem than the scrum. And centre partners Brian O'Driscoll and Gordon D'Arcy look as if they have just met each other and forgotten everything learned about defence under Kurt McQuilkin.
The entire team has lost a defence coherence and organisation that had been there since Matt Williams and Alan Gaffney.
One suspects it is too late for Schmidt to get the team back on the rails. The Magners League is no barometer of Heineken Cup success but I suspect this is a coach that has lost the dressing-room. The last time I saw such a collective unwillingness to compete was Eddie O'Sullivan's Ireland at the last World Cup. It will require a stunning change in attitude for Leinster to qualify for the knock-out stages.
Munster will qualify for all the reasons Leinster will not. Tony McGahan has made no effort to subscribe to the new game being played around the globe, sticking instead to the tried and trusted. Back-room boys Anthony Foley and Mick Galwey will help preserve a game based on Ronan O'Gara's kicking and a decade of pressure to see the side home. The opponents present the right kind of challenge: London Irish will flatter to deceive; Ospreys, despite their Magners League triumph, are not a team Munster fear, principally because they cannot bully the men in red; and Toulon do not have the intrinsic flair and hardness to win on the road.
Munster and Ulster in the quarter-finals but no Irish team in the last four will test the loyalty of the ticket-buying public in a depression. Rugby could be like the property market: full of high expectations based on a bubble.