Friday 21 October 2016

Provinces languish in rugby recession

Eamonn Sweeney

Published 20/12/2015 | 17:00

19 December 2015; Leinster head coach Leo Cullen ahead of the game. European Rugby Champions Cup, Pool 5, Round 4, Leinster v RC Toulon. Aviva Stadium, Lansdowne Road, Dublin. Picture credit: Stephen McCarthy / SPORTSFILE
19 December 2015; Leinster head coach Leo Cullen ahead of the game. European Rugby Champions Cup, Pool 5, Round 4, Leinster v RC Toulon. Aviva Stadium, Lansdowne Road, Dublin. Picture credit: Stephen McCarthy / SPORTSFILE

Well, that was fun while it lasted. I suppose it really began in the winter of 1999/2000 when Munster twice beat a star-studded Saracens team by a point in the group stages. They had reached the quarter-finals the previous season but it was those victories and the run to the Heineken Cup final which followed that really began one of the great prolonged success stories of Irish sport.

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OK, Ulster had won the whole shebang in 1999 but that was in an attenuated competition shorn of the boycotting English clubs. Yes, 49,000 turned up to their final in Lansdowne Road against Colomiers but there were 68,000 in Twickenham the following year to see Munster get edged out by Northampton and 74,600 two years later for their decider against Leicester in Cardiff.

And when in 2012 Leinster beat Ulster in the final, which seemed to sum up the era of Irish dominance, there were 81,774 people in attendance. It remains a final record but it wasn't as big as the crowd which saw the epochal 2009 semi-final between Munster and Leinster at Croke Park when 82,208 souls witnessed the game which marked the passing of the torch from the former to the latter, who would go on to win three finals in four years. Added to the two Munster had previously bagged, this made five triumphs out of seven for Ireland.

It was those Heineken Cup heroics which, even more than our Six Nations performances, saw rugby reach an all-time high in this country in terms of underage player numbers, support and general public goodwill. The rugby boom was the equivalent of the Celtic Tiger's economic upsurge, though largely unexpected at first it came to seem unstoppable.

And now, just three years after that historic 2012 final, it appears that we have come to the end of an era. Barring a miracle there will be no Irish team in the knockout stage of the competition which is billed these days as the Champions Cup. We have become irrelevant, the way Wales and Scotland used to be. The provinces are in rugby recession.

You could write this season's disaster off as a fluke, a result of inexperienced managers, Leo Cullen at Leinster, Anthony Foley at Munster, finding their feet. But it's been on the cards. The first cracks appeared in 2013 when holders Leinster failed to make the last eight. Last year it was Munster's turn to miss out on the knockout stages.

Chances are that things aren't going to turn around any time soon. The French are the new Irish with Toulon winning the last three competitions, beating Clermont in two of those finals. And though a challenge to their dominance appears to be materialising this year, it's coming from the English clubs, the likes of Saracens, Leicester and Bath.

There have been suggestions that the Toulon approach of assembling a load of world-class players, which has been emulated by Clermont, Racing Metro and Saracens, in some way offends against the sacred canons of rugger. But this is merely a lot of whining from a pack of sore losers. In fact, you can argue that these clubs are doing the competition a favour by increasing the number of world-class players playing in it. After a World Cup which demonstrated that Six Nations rugby lags grievously behind the game in the southern hemisphere, the more top-quality imports we have playing on this side of the world the better. It should end up improving the standard of the game here.

What it may also do is leave the Irish provinces behind, their old model rendered obsolete by the move towards big-money signings. This makes it a particularly inopportune time for Munster to go issuing condescending diktats to their fans. Human outrage machine Trevor Hogan may feel that booing Ian Keatley is like racism or sexual harassment but Munster have more important things to worry about.

The one bright spot on the provincial scene is the stirring run by Connacht, which has taken them to second in the Pro12 table and top of their Challenge Cup group. Just as well the IRFU didn't succeed in abolishing them a few years ago, isn't it? If they had there might be no Robbie Henshaw for Leinster to poach.

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