Saturday 10 December 2016

Tony Ward: Money men calling the tune but Pro12 must rise again to keep competition alive

Published 26/01/2016 | 02:30

Ulster's Jared Payne. Picture credit: Ramsey Cardy / Sportsfile
Ulster's Jared Payne. Picture credit: Ramsey Cardy / Sportsfile

For the first time in almost 20 years there will be no Irish representation at the business end of Europe's premier club competition. While hugely disappointing it is not the end of the world or, more specifically, the end of professional rugby as we know it in this neck of the woods.

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There is no denying we have dropped off the pace from where we once were and the shifting of the financial goalposts in the Anglo-French heave has benefited the club owners on both sides of the English Channel.

With five English Premiership clubs and three Top 14 in the last eight minus even a token Pro12 presence, this is clearly a cause for concern.

Does it mean a Pro12 club or an Irish province will never win the Champions Cup? I don't believe it does and, while we can predict nothing in the future with any degree of certainty, Pro 12 clubs should re-emerge at the top table in Europe for the simple reason that they have to.

Say we have a repeat of this year's World Cup in Japan in a little less than four years' time. How long do you think the Webb Ellis would last if it were to become a southern hemisphere preserve? Likewise the Champions Cup were it to fuse into an Anglo-French competition on an annual basis?

For the French Federation (FFR) and the English Rugby Union (RFU), there are major issues in relation to the decreasing supply of indigenous talent to the national side.

Anti-climactic

In transforming the running of the competition from ERC and Dublin to EPCR and Neuchatel, those who pay the piper have called the tune - for now. But that has to change for their sake as well as the other four nations although I do fear greatly as to where Italian rugby can go from here.

From an Irish perspective, it has of course been a hugely disappointing campaign on the back of an even greater anti-climactic end to a World Cup that for so long had promised so much. Irish rugby is down but far from out. And yes there were some mitigating circumstances as to why we under-performed in Europe this time around.

Injuries and emotional fatigue took their toll on the national elite, leaving us undercooked for the English who on the back of exiting the World Cup at the Pool stage returned to their clubs to reintegrate into the Premiership and prepare for the Champions Cup earlier.

To lose your opening game at home is close to exiting the marathon before you've even left the stadium.

Leinster and Ulster weren't just beaten by Wasps and Saracens, they were demolished and demoralised in the process.

Leinster never recovered but credit Ulster for going as close as they did to bouncing back and almost qualifying for the business end.

Every club/province/region involved appreciates just how much the bar has risen and if like Toulon, buying success floats your boat, then so be it.

We are victims of our own success in so far as we, through six outright wins and phenomenal support, have raised that bar as much as any.

The English and French know that and know they need a vibrant and competitive Irish involvement in the competition. Not least for increasing TV income. Take out the competitive element and even TV moguls will run for cover when turning elsewhere.

But back to matters immediate and a hugely disappointing end to a Champions Cup campaign which in truth after round one (yes, even with Munster taking all five points against Treviso) saw Irish teams staring into the abyss.

On the plus side both Munster and Ulster finished with bonus-point wins. Leinster sadly let themselves and Irish rugby down.

To ship 50 points including seven tries in a second-half cakewalk for the English side now based in Coventry is simply unacceptable.

To lose Jonathan Sexton was a kick to the solar plexus early but even the loss of the captain on the day should not have pre-empted what followed. The concern now is for his welfare going forward but in his absence it meant a baptism of fire for Cathal Marsh.

To add salt to the gaping wound, Jimmy Gopperth was for Wasps what he was so regularly for Leinster, a class game-managing act in the No 10 shirt. The ridicule he received from so-called Leinster fans in his time at the RDS was beyond the pale - then and now.

From Leo Cullen, the genius against Bath, to Leo the clown seven days on just about sums up the fickleness of modern professional game and its 'support'.

From an Irish perspective, Sexton's latest knock to the head is a major concern. If he is ruled out of the opening Six Nations game then Paddy Jackson should be the logical replacement based on form and needs with Ian Madigan still occupying that impact role.

Presence

Jackson is playing with a confidence and a presence previously lacking in his game.

We'll stop short of saying swagger because he is not that type of player but if Sexton is ruled out then Jackson has earned the right to first shot at the pivotal position in his absence.

Selection now is no longer about the best starting XV but the most prudent use of the top 23. And if Jackson continued his recent streak of fine form against Oyonnax then Jared Payne (playing only his second game since world cup injury) was even better again.

Nick Williams got the official man of the match and he was again very good but Payne was as close as doesn't matter to that gong.

I would love to see him given a run at full-back - his best position - in the upcoming Six Nations.

Irish Independent

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