Monday 24 October 2016

Jim Glennon: Bums on seats are vital to protect the fabric of Irish game

Jim Glennon

Published 29/11/2015 | 10:00

Ulster Director of Rugby Les Kiss
Ulster Director of Rugby Les Kiss

The return to the comforting familiarity of the Pro12 came as something of a relief for Leinster and Ulster from the tempestuous European waters they have been trying to navigate in recent weeks.

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Connacht, in contrast, have been riding the crest of a wave in the league and moving relatively comfortably in the Challenge Cup, while Munster were bonus point winners in their only European outing. But Friday's RDS meeting of fellow European strugglers Leinster and Ulster had an added edge and an unusually pressurised feel to it.

While Les Kiss's team were comprehensively outmuscled and outplayed by Saracens, it was Leo Cullen and his group who were feeling the pressure more acutely. Bath proved last season that it's possible to emerge from a European pool after two opening losses, but such is the strength of Leinster's group that it's difficult to see how they can emulate that feat.

The Pro12, which has often been greeted by Leinster supporters with a level of enthusiasm akin to that reserved by Dublin or Kerry football supporters for the National League, has now assumed a new importance, not only in terms of qualification and seeding for Europe next season, but also just to get the wheels back on the wagon. The Pro12 now matters, and matters dearly.

Leinster, bulk suppliers to Ireland's World Cup campaign, are suffering because of that, and the focus has shifted from the cause of the problem to its solution. While few others suffered the level of disruption they endured, the contrasting ease with which international players scattered around clubs in England and France have transitioned back to their teams has been striking.

The team and the wider squad clearly need more time, and it could well be that the answer lies in that wider squad. The likes of Garry Ringrose, Josh Van Der Flier and Luke McGrath have been impressive this season, and hooker James Tracy's recent man of the match performance at home against the Scarlets was one of the most encouraging performances from a Leinster newcomer for quite some time.

The fundamental premise of simply selecting the form player seems especially apt for Leinster at this juncture, and there were some positive steps taken in this regard for the Ulster game. If the seniors within the squad aren't performing, then opportunity knocks for those who are and they are deserving of the opportunity.

The new coach has impressed in his public utterances; his message was strong and assured, belying the circumstances and his own inexperience. One of his key messages after the Bath game was that the squad needed the support of their fans. The coming months will be a testing period not just for those on the pitch, but also for those off it.

The massive growth in popularity of Irish professional rugby occurred during what was something of a perfect storm for the provinces. Set against the backdrop of a booming economy, the IRFU's provincial structure with its centralised player system made the most of a golden generation at a time of relative financial constraint for English and French clubs, thereby making provincial rugby on this island something of an easy sell. Success and increased support followed.

It now seems that we are in the early stages of a period of relative austerity, one which will present a stern test of the strength and loyalty of that support base.

Munster have struggled in recent times to maintain large crowds at Thomond Park on a regular basis, even for European games, and it remains to be seen just what sort of crowd Leinster will attract for the annual marquee December European game in the Aviva - bearing in mind that the opposition doesn't come any more box-office than champions Toulon.

In the face of the huge financial muscle currently being exercised by the English and French clubs, the maintenance, at the very least, of the provinces' finances is of paramount importance. Bums on seats are more crucial than ever if the franchises are to be protected from private control, a consequence seen by some as an inevitability in the medium-term.

We all remember the advertising campaign which posited the misguided notion that 'this is rugby country', something of a leap even at that prosperous time for Irish rugby.

A few years on, as the nature of the support faces its first real test, I'm reminded of the wisdom of a response from an old friend, the late Mick Doyle, when asked to distinguish between involvement and commitment: "The chicken is involved in the egg, but the pig is committed to the rasher."

Interesting, and testing, times.

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