Ruaidhri O'Connor: Irish provinces fighting uphill battle to relive glory days
Published 15/10/2016 | 02:30
If it's any consolation to the Irish provinces, they were missed in the knock-out stages last season. In the past week or so, there have been articles from across the Irish Sea hoping for a revival, while the organisers of the Champions Cup, EPCR, have been clear in their desire that the fledgling tournament be as diverse as possible for as long as possible.
The organisation's chairman Simon Halliday has spent time with the provinces trying to understand the issues behind the decline in results, while director general Vincent Gaillard will spend this weekend in Galway on a goodwill mission to Galway.
Goodwill, however, will only get the players on the pitch so far when they go up against opponents from the Top 14 in the next 48 hours.
The results from last season, when no Guinness Pro12 team made it beyond the pool, have been roundly dismissed as an anomaly, but the next two weeks will determine if there is a trend behind it.
Since Leinster last claimed the trophy by beating Ulster at Twickenham in 2012, no Irish team has been to a final.
Munster were beaten semi-finalists in 2013 and '14, while Leinster took Toulon to extra-time a year later but last year saw the English and French clubs carve up the knock-outs between them as Saracens went all the way to become the first English winners since 2007.
The simple way of assessing the current balance of power is to follow the money.
In a world where television revenue has long out-paced any other source of finance, the Pro12's measly £12m-a-year income is paltry compared to €75m in France and €48m in England and doesn't give the participants much buying power on the all-important international transfer market.
There is more to it, of course.
The provinces won't openly complain of it, but they often feel they are competing with one arm tied behind their back by the IRFU, whose mission of promoting the national team above all conflicts with provincial ambitions.
In England, the restrictions imposed by the salary cap have been all but lifted, while the JIFF rules in France, designed to increase the number of French-qualified players in the Top 14 are largely ineffectual.
In Wales and Scotland the unions have some influence, but in Ireland the provinces must doff their cap to Lansdowne Road before getting a deal across the line.
Hence, Munster's bid to bring in much-needed experience in the form of Stephen Moore was kiboshed last season, while Ulster's ambitions beyond 2017 have been tempered by David Nucifora's decision to deny Ruan Pienaar an extended stay.
As the Irish sides keep a tight lid on overseas imports, the competition's outstanding team can add Schalk Burger and Eben Etzebeth to their roster. Wasps, who humiliated Leinster twice last year, have replaced Charles Piutau with Kurtley Beale, and Leicester Tigers will be even better set for this year's double-header against Munster because of the arrival of Matt Toomua.
The national team pay the bills and performance director Nucifora would argue that the reviews of both the 2011 and 2015 World Cups found that a lack of depth in the system were key reasons behind the quarter-final exits. He will also point to the largely successful retention of top talent as a positive.
But the IRFU should not lose sight of the importance of strong provinces to the overall health of the game; the number of radio ads and online campaigns designed to shift European tickets show that performances are having an effect on interest.
Then, there is the Pro12 itself and the question of whether the competition is of the requisite standard to prepare the Irish sides for going up against the big guns.
Having four Irish provinces in the competition is a positive, but the fact that Wales and Scotland could only muster one qualifier each is a concern.
Glasgow Warriors have grown into a force in the league under Gregor Townsend, but they have not been able to get out of their Champions Cup pool and have lost their best player, Leone Nakarawa, to Pool 1 opponents Racing 92.
The Scots have struggled for air against the big beasts of France and England.
"If you make errors against the top teams in Europe, they will punish you," is Glasgow captain Henry Pyrgos' summation of the step-up.
"Games are decided on very small moments. If you get an opportunity in their 22 and don't execute, you might not get another. Messing up lineouts, scrum penalties. . . simple things matter in these big games. You are not going to get away with making mistakes, that is why you have got to put in really good performances over 80 minutes. That is the challenge."
At least this year there is no World Cup hangover to worry about.
Players were barely able to digest their disappointment at their quarter-final exits and they were being asked to perform to near-Test match intensity again. It didn't go well.
As a result, Townsend believes the pool exit from all the Pro12 teams can be set aside.
"Last year was an anomaly," the Scotland coach-elect said. "The competition has got better with the meritocracy with cutting teams from 24 to 20. It is much tougher for clubs to get into those last eight positions."
Connacht supremo Pat Lam agrees.
"Without a doubt, we're all spread throughout the competition," the Samoan said.
"Everyone's determined. Glasgow will be better, the Irish provinces will do a good job. We all feel that sense of responsibility, there's no doubt, talking to the other coaches, Wayne Pivac at the Scarlets too.
"The added bonus is there's four chances for the Irish provinces, and we want to make sure we're there."
Rob Kearney believes this year will answer the question as to whether the decline is a trend or if the Pro12 was just suffering from a World Cup hangover last season.
"This season will give a bit more of a telling insight into it," the Ireland full-back said.
"The domestic league teams are definitely firing a little bit better than we were last year and have had a bit more time.
"The competitiveness of the competition has got a lot stronger but that is something that we won't be able to determine for a few months yet.
"It's hard to know. We've had some really tough games over the last few weeks. The intensity of last week, Munster at the Aviva, those games are always really testing. If there is one game you would want before round one of Europe, they don't come much better than that."
This weekend, the Irish sides all encounter French opposition but it was in their meetings with the English clubs where things fell apart last year.
Leinster's win over Bath was the only Irish success over English opposition in eight attempts as the Premiership finally bounced back after years of struggling in Europe.
The fact that the Irish sides have avoided Saracens and Toulon, who have won the last four titles between them and meet today, is a blessing, and the draw has been relatively kind to Leinster and Connacht, while Ulster have a good chance of emerging from a tough group. Munster look a long shot.
Certainly, the bookmakers are not expecting a serious Irish challenge this season but after last year's historically poor campaign it would be an improvement for the provinces to still have an interest in April.
The landscape has changed utterly since the fans of Leinster and Ulster took over Twickenham five seasons ago and this meaner, leaner competition has yet to ignite the same type of passion as its predecessor did, for a number of reasons.
Yet, there is no doubting that the return of European action has heightened the interest and raised the stakes this week. If an Irish team can put together a run, the fears of falling behind won't last long.
Another season in the doldrums, however, would spark fears for the future of the provinces, who rely on European success for so much.
The days of dominance are gone, but competitiveness remains a realistic aspiration.
It's over to the players to demonstrate that the gap hasn't widened too far.