Cup power struggles have damaged on-field product
Irish success aside, declining standards are a cause for concern writes Jim Glennon
With Europe put to bed for the moment and contract issues largely resolved, attention turns to the Six Nations, with the Wolfhounds (Ireland 'A') game against the English Saxons yesterday providing an interesting lead-in. However, with the contract saga having stretched into the middle of last week, not to mention the massive interest generated by three Irish provinces making the last eight of the Heineken Cup, the professional club scene remains very much to the forefront of the minds of Irish rugby followers.
At the outset, it must be said that the success of our top three provinces in emerging from their respective pools into the quarter-finals is an outstanding achievement, regardless of the levels of quality across the groups. That question must be asked though – just how does the quality of this season's renewal compare with the competition's usual standards?
Looking back at last weekend's action, it's not unreasonable to suggest that the only truly compelling game was at Welford Road between Leicester and Ulster. Two quality teams, both equally worthy of a place in the last eight, going at each other 'hammer and tongs', with the cream of the talent on display demonstrating the broad range of their abilities as well as their value to their employers.
Apart from that particular match-up however, one struggles to identify anything more than occasional short-lived patches of quality anywhere else.
It can always be argued that the final weekend of pool action, with several teams already out of contention, is not necessarily the optimum yardstick on which to base the assertion, but the fact remains that, over the years, we've come to expect from the final round of pool games a range of sometimes epic and generally compelling matches and scrambles for qualification. That, for some unknown reason, was missing this season.
It's clear that the competition's structure is far from perfect, but what's not so easy is to get a handle on the levels of commitment of some of the participants, the French in particular.
To select an example of relevance for Irish supporters, let's look at Toulouse. We saw them succumb to an outstanding Connacht performance in round three, tasting defeat for the first time ever in the Heineken Cup at Stade Ernest Wallon and they followed that with another remarkable slip last weekend when they failed to achieve a try-scoring bonus point away to Zebre, missing out on a crucial home quarter-final as a consequence.
In the past, this would have been simply unconscionable. Yes, the purchasing power at the command of Guy Noves and his colleagues has been diminished by the nouveau riches of the likes of Clermont, Toulon, and most recently Racing Metro, so that they no longer enjoy their traditional pick of the talent-pool but that simply doesn't wash as an explanation. Even the nature of their opening-round win away to Saracens, an impressive-enough feat, was a disappointment, as was the general style and quality of their play throughout the pool stage.
That Munster were able to recover with relative ease from their opening day defeat to Edinburgh to win their remaining five games says a lot about their pool's quality too. It has been noted already where Gloucester and Perpignan lie in their respective domestic leagues and while Munster performed sufficiently well to achieve home and away victories over both, they're by no means unique in that achievement this season.
Noteworthy too was the ease with which Munster racked up some of their tries on the way to last Sunday's bonus point win in Thomond Park. While Johne Murphy took his try, Munster's second, with aplomb, the tissue-like quality of the defence presented by Edinburgh's back-row should be an embarrassment for any self-respecting professional outfit.
Edinburgh may have a minimal history of contending in the competition, but the ease with which that try was conceded would raise eyebrows in a junior club team.
It certainly appears that the power struggles at the top of the professional game are having a negative impact on the on-field product and while that situation may continue in the short-term, it's a slide that needs to be arrested at the earliest opportunity.
Its impacts are being felt at all levels of the game – there was, prior to this season, a sizeable cohort of club members around the country who already felt little or no connection to the professional franchises in their respective regions; these can
only have been pushed even further away by recent events, and with others swelling their ranks.
The top brass of the unions must recognise these factors at play. I'm sometimes accused of harping on about the amateur club game, and more often thanked I might add, but there's no escaping the reality that it has suffered badly right across these islands since the advent of professionalism. Issues around fixture scheduling, with games intermittently batched across the weeks and months through the season with little chance for development of momentum on or off the field, and a lack of consideration for the amateur players and volunteers involved, continue to fester. The sooner the game's administrators resolve the current uncertainties and re-apply their attentions to the recreational sport that is the game of rugby, the better for all concerned.
Where exactly the Irish provinces stand in the pecking-order amidst all of this is a tough one to call. Statistics tell us that 75 per cent of quarter-finals are won by the home team and, at this juncture anyway, Ulster and Munster appear reasonably well-equipped to resist the visiting Saracens and Toulouse respectively.
Leinster, by no means immune from the odd wobbly patch in their pool, will hope to be the ones to maintain that 25 per cent element of away success in Toulon. After that, anything is possible, particularly in the context of the likely injury-list that will be accrued in what is sure to be a hugely attritional Six Nations.