Provinces seek tonic for World hangover
IRISH rugby reacted to the disappointment of the 2007 World Cup by landing the Heineken Cup and Magners League titles through Munster and Leinster, respectively. It was a decent response.
Those triumphs did not expunge the memories of that tortuous time in France but they did provide a welcome boost as well as the self-belief that steeled the Grand Slam success the following season.
It was a far better World Cup this time around, but the sense of regret and opportunity lost would undoubtedly be diluted by strong Heineken Cup campaigns from the provinces and, conversely, accentuated if they were to struggle.
Last weekend's Pro12 inter-provincial contests did not provide much encouragement. Both derbies were stilted affairs with constructive play in short supply and injuries to Keith Earls, Johann Muller and Stephen Ferris did little to lighten the mood. The fact that returning internationals are still finding their provincial feet was one mitigating factor, as was the psychological effect of knowing that the Heineken Cup is just around the corner.
However, it would have been good to see evidence of more cohesive attacking play (with an emphasis on hitting the ball from depth) as it was the less set-piece reliant, more inventive teams that filled the last four spots at the World Cup.
The Heineken Cup arrives with win-at-all-costs prerogatives, and a tough opening round of fixtures for the Irish participants does not point towards an explosion of running rugby next weekend.
That is something to be looked for as the season progresses while the development of younger players is another over-riding theme post-World Cup. As regards an Irish team having the capacity to take the title, Heineken Cup champions Leinster look the best equipped.
They have a manageable pool where the unknown application of debutants Montpellier represents the greatest threat and, though Nathan Hines will be missed, Leinster have the core of the squad that played so impressively last season.
Furthermore, in the likes of Dominic Ryan, Fergus McFadden and Eoin O'Malley there are youngsters ready to back up the established performers, although Brian O'Driscoll's shoulder problems remain a major concern.
Munster have their own injury worries to complicate matters and are struggling for backline potency. Crucially, however, they have made moves to sort out the scrummaging difficulties that crippled them last season with the acquisition of BJ Botha and still have the daunting advantage of Thomond Park and a seasoned pack of forwards to make it count.
The emergence of Peter O'Mahony, Danny Barnes and Conor Murray adds a youthful dose of vigour while Lifeimi Mafi looks very sharp and, judging by their excellent defence against Leinster and Ronan O'Gara's continued good form, Munster have the capacity to bounce back from last season's poor pool performance.
Ulster will find it harder to top last season when they reached the quarter-finals for the first time since 1999. There are good individuals in the Ulster squad but little collective force and, if they are to go down, it would be preferable to see them go down fighting with home-grown talent gaining valuable experience, rather than the current reliance on imported heft.
Connacht's quest is for credibility in a group containing Toulouse and Harlequins where qualification would be a miracle of Knock proportions. However, they can only benefit from this exposure which will hopefully also aid the advancement of talents such as Tiernan O'Halloran and Eoin Griffin.
The glass half-full scenario sees Munster and Leinster securing home quarter-finals and, from there, one-off knockout matches create their own opportunities. Irish rugby needs its players operating at the business end of this competition to kick on from the World Cup, particularly with a Six Nations and summer tour to New Zealand to negotiate.
If that can be combined with a move towards more progressive attacking play and the emergence of a new generation of international-quality players, it would constitute an extremely productive season -- regardless of whether there is a trophy at the end of it.
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