Irish coaches to fore in race for European silverware
For the first time in the professional era – we shall discount the 1997/98 season when the IRFU’s ostrich-like necks were still firmly entrenched in sand – there will be no Irish province in the knockout stages of top-flight European competition.
English and French clubs have always had more participants and more greenbacks, yet Ireland somehow punched above their weight to secure an astonishing run of five titles in the seven years between Munster’s first of two, in 2006, and Leinster’s last of three, in 2012.
Despite the disparity of resources, Ireland possessed better coaches and players at provincial level – from O’Connell, O’Driscoll and O’Gara to Kidney, Cheika and Schmidt; the present dip in standards has been appreciable.
A glimpse at the standard of fare dished up in what was once the premier club fixture in world rugby at IRFU HQ last weekend offered a damning indictment of how the provinces have stood still while the rest of Europe have accelerated.
But there is still plenty of Irish interest in Europe this weekend – aside from the standout Grenoble v Connacht fixture – and even if the players involved are denied access to a green shirt, and the coaches remain temporarily – or permanently – exiled, they deserve acclamation.
Wasps v Exeter
The main Irish character here will not be on the field or in the coaching box, and few will know his face or even his name: Wasps’ owner, Derek Richardson.
Irish centres James Downey and Brendan Macken have had limited opportunities for Wasps, although Macken recently signed a new deal.
English-born Mark Tainton, Ireland’s kicking coach for three Triple Crowns in the 2000s, is on a short-term deal with Dai Young’s men. S&C coach Tom McLaughlin is ex-Connacht and physio Gavin Dempsey is from Cork.
Exeter have three Ulsterman in their ranks: centre Ian Whitten, out-half Gareth Steenson and second-row Lewis Stevenson.
Saracens v Northampton
Saracens are coached by 48-year-old Bangor native Mark McCall.
Despite his record with Ireland A and underage sides, a short-term and short-tempered stint with under-resourced Ulster is still an albatross flung around his shoulder by detractors; yet he won the province’s only trophy in a decade of shocking under-achievement, their 2006 Celtic League title.
Saints snapped up Munster’s dissatisfied out-half JJ Hanrahan last summer. Paul Shields, a twice-capped Irish hooker in 2003 against Samoa in Apia and Italy in Limerick – en route to becoming the ninth player to win 100 caps with Ulster, with whom he won both Celtic Cup and League – is the team manager after joining the club in 2008.
Leicester v Stade Francais
The Leicester career of the Tigers’ only current Irish player, the injury-plagued Niall Morris, effectively ended this week after Richard Cockerill confirmed his contract won’t be renewed.
Morris’ idol, Geordan Murphy, remains an assistant coach, now in season two, and he has flourished since aligning with Kiwi Aaron Mauger this season; the mood music is of giddy co-operation rather than mutual envy and the team’s expansiveness is a joy to behold.
Racing 92 v Toulon
Ronan O’Gara’s refusal to rush his coaching career continues to pay rich dividends; this is more than an apprenticeship though, and his influence on the belatedly settled side is beginning to show through. Toulon, sadly, will pursue another title tilt without the now retired Paul O’Connell.
Harlequins v London Irish
Conor O’Shea aims to leave his Harlequins side on a high before formally taking the poisoned – but lucrative – Italian chalice; this could be their sole chance of silverware as they lie adrift of the play-offs domestically.
Relegation-threatened London Irish – who are backed by Cavan businessman Mick Crossan – have 2009 Grand Slam winning prop Tom Court on their books, as well as flanker Conor Gilsenan, lock Eoin Sheriff, centre Eoin Griffin and loan players Jerry Sexton and Ian Nagle.
Gloucester v Dragons
The fifth Irish coach – either head or assistant – involved this weekend is former Ulster Director of Rugby and international out-half David Humphreys; confusing the clamour for another foreigner, Pat Lam, to become Joe Schmidt’s successor.
Winners of the Challenge Cup two years ago, Gloucester have struggled to kick on despite a significant budget – they lured New Zealand World Cup-winner John Afoa from Ulster on a €500,000 salary. Another ex-Ulster prop, Paddy McAllister, is on significantly less, we presume.
Sale v Montpellier
The ageless scrum-half Peter Stringer neatly links back to the beginning of Ireland’s dominance in Europe, the 2006 and 2008 winner with Munster remaining a crucial part of the Sale squad. Defence coach Mike Forshaw was once of Connacht.