Thursday 29 September 2016

Comment: Is Irish rugby falling to the back of the pack?

Michael McCarthy

Published 25/11/2015 | 02:30

Leinster players, from left, Fergus McFadden, Rhys Ruddock, Jack McGrath and Dominic Ryan can’t hide their disappointment after losing to Bath at the weekend
Leinster players, from left, Fergus McFadden, Rhys Ruddock, Jack McGrath and Dominic Ryan can’t hide their disappointment after losing to Bath at the weekend

There's a lot of negativity around in Irish rugby at the moment. It wasn't that the World Cup was any worse than the others, it's that it was the same old, same old - the realisation that our opinion of ourselves is just a little inflated.

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That malaise has continued through to the club season, which comes alive all the quicker in World Cup years, catching us unawares. And before we've adjusted to thinking about European rugby again, Leinster are out of the Champions Cup. Ulster aren't too far behind them. Munster are alive and kicking for sure but, realistically, we have to accept that but for a home game against an Italian team and a called-off game in Paris, it could be a lot different.

Connacht has been the only positive story in Irish rugby so far this season and, unfortunately, their exploits will never be taken as seriously when outside European's top competition.

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We analysed Leinster's "transition period" a lot on Monday night's Off The Ball with Shane Jennings and Eddie O'Sullivan, and while I can't argue that Leo Cullen will naturally need time to adapt to being a head coach, not to mention adjusting to a completely new squad with no pre-season behind them after the World Cup, I couldn't help feeling throughout the conversation that we were missing a bigger problem here.

Are Leinster really in a transition phase, or is Irish rugby reverting to the mean and finding its level?

The money in the English and French games is something we simply can't compete with. The Premiership's salary cap jumping through the roof is frightening, and there's no end in sight.

The big teams now have two full squads to pick from, perfect for battling on two fronts. The Heineken Cup was restructured to exert their dominance. Did we think we'd be immune to this?

When you look at Welsh and Scottish club rugby in the 20 years of professionalism, you realise what a great job the IRFU has done and how ahead of the game we've been. It can't go on forever though. That is our natural level. You can compete with the big boys for so long, but the system is fixed. We are not supposed to compete.

For now, our home-grown players still play here, and for only four teams. That helps. But when the pick of Australia, South African, New Zealand, Argentina and Wales are available to English and French clubs, along with their own players, we haven't a hope. Maybe we need to change the narrative about transition and realise we're looking down the barrel of a barren period we haven't experienced in professionalism.

Or maybe that World Cup malaise is still clouding my judgement.

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