Ruaidhri O'Connor: Outlook for 2016 looks bleak with Irish rugby stuck in transition
Worrying decline of provincial performances means turbulence up ahead for men in green
Published 19/12/2015 | 02:30
A year ago, we asked if Irish rugby was becoming the new Wales, but after a less-than-inspiring beginning to the season, some are wondering if Scotland might be a more apt comparison.
For years, the Irish fans wondered at the Welsh regions' below-par European performances as their national team claimed Grand Slams and reached the World Cup semi-final, while Ireland's provinces overperformed as the national team struggled, at times, to keep pace.
The Scots, underperforming at both levels, rarely entered the equation. But the fear for Ireland is that a fallow period looms, in which teams at all levels will struggle for the foreseeable future.
This time last year, the optimism generated by Ireland pulling off an excellent November series dissipated as a result of the provinces' struggles in Europe. After four rounds of Champions Cup action, all three Irish representatives were in trouble, and although Leinster muddled their way to a semi-final as Ulster and Munster came up short, it was far from a vintage year.
On the domestic front, both of the latter two sides reached the Guinness Pro12 play-offs before losing to Glasgow Warriors, while the eastern province's form fell to pieces and they parted company with Matt O'Connor as a result. As for Connacht, they were upsetting the apple-cart by leading from the front but ultimately came a cropper and missed out on their stated goal of qualifying for the Champions Cup.
Yet, Ireland's retention of the Six Nations title meant the provincial underachievement was glossed over to an extent.
A year on, the national team performed well in the World Cup pool stages before coming up short at the familiar quarter-final stage after losing a third of their team to injury and suspension.
For the provinces, the post-World Cup picture looks eerily similar to last season. Leinster are out of Europe and Munster and Ulster are finding life tricky in their pools. Three English clubs have plundered Irish venues with comparative ease. Connacht, yet again, are flying high but injuries are taking their toll. Plus ça change.
For Ireland, Joe Schmidt faces a difficult 2016. Ireland open their Six Nations campaign with Wales at home, before facing France and England away. Italy and Scotland at home may provide some respite, but a three-Test tour of South Africa looms large as the players enter weeks 49, 50 and 51 of their season. That's before they even start thinking about facing New Zealand twice in November.
There will be no Paul O'Connell to lean on, while the injury list is mounting and some of the country's most important players have yet to clear their post-World Cup hangovers.
Schmidt assembles his squad for the first time in the first week of the new year, while the Wales game is only seven weeks away. He will be watching the weekend's games in trepidation.
A like-for-like comparison between this stage of the season and last is impossible because the schedule has been compressed due to the World Cup, but it is clear that there are deep-seated issues that need addressing if the game is to thrive at all levels.
Before he was sacked, O'Connor's frustration at the perceived imbalance between the national team and the provinces got the better of him and he raised his head above the parapet by slating the player management system that denied him access to his top players at crucial stages of the season.
In response, IRFU performance director David Nucifora called a press conference in which Schmidt pointedly compared his own record with his successor's and effectively made the Leinster coach's position untenable.
"It comes back to how you are managing the players and how well is that working," Schmidt said.
"It's a challenge for provincial coaches to get the best out of their teams all the time when you don't always have the top players available. The system isn't broken and we're trying to refine it every quarter."
Within a couple of weeks, O'Connor was gone. The war of words, a rarity within the sanitised world of Irish rugby, lifted the lid on the strained relations between the provinces - Leinster in particular - and the union whose position towards overseas players has hardened in recent years.
Talk to former players and it is clear that they see the imbalance between Ireland and the provinces coming from the poor quality of import in the dressing rooms of Leinster, Munster and Ulster. Connacht have no restrictions on foreign signings. There is also disquiet over a drop in skills at Leinster in particular.
In the wake of the 2011 World Cup, the IRFU brought out their refined restrictions on overseas recruits; a set of hard and fast guidelines that have largely been cast aside due to their unworkable nature.
Now, the provinces identify a target and take the policy to Nucifora who plays Caesar. The grumble from the province is that the emperor's thumb is largely pointed towards the floor.
The union will argue that the World Cup has demonstrated that the system needs fewer foreigners rather than more, that the lack of depth when the front-liners went down was exposed ruthlessly by Argentina.
They will say that the international team remains the financial driver of the game and the figures back them up.
According to the union's strategic plan, Ireland bring in 80pc of the union's revenues, the provinces bring in 14pc yet the provinces should be seen as far more than a cost on a spreadsheet or a supply line to the national team.
Empty seats at the RDS and Thomond Park should worry everyone in Irish rugby. The national team may have no problem shifting tickets for the Six Nations, but the provinces generate interest throughout the year and bring new faces to the game.
Stopping someone like Stephen Moore from joining Munster to allow Niall Scannell get game-time is short-sighted when it comes to growing the game. The Dolphin hooker is an excellent prospect, but the arrival of a bona fide world-class talent like the Wallabies captain would have eased the mood of discord around Thomond Park.
This week, Conor Murray spoke about the positive influence that overseas signings have had on his time at Munster.
"Really, really good; I've experienced it since I've been with Munster," he said.
"We've been through a handful of really experienced foreign players who have come from hugely successful club and international careers and they might just have a different outlook.
"It's just their viewpoint and seeing things that you mightn't see, that you mightn't be aware of. They might run a move differently, do something that you might not be aware of and it's all that sort of knowledge that are passed through.
"We've a certain way of playing, we grew up with a certain tradition or culture and they came from something different and that mix, with a great coaching set-up, is really positive for our group.
"You saw when Munster won the two Heineken Cups there was always an international impact."
The provinces are facing increased competition from the big-spending clubs in France and England to identify quality in the market and are struggling to attract quality as a result.
That's why the likes of Stephen Ferris and Brian O'Driscoll have spoken out about the lack of quality imports in their old provinces.
Last Sunday, Zane Kirchner - Leinster's marquee signing - spent the 10 minutes before kick-off in Toulon doing a sprinting session instead of contributing against Toulon; this week he is on the bench. That's after he was handed a two-year extension to his contract.
Understandably, the IRFU's focus has been on retaining their own talent and indications are that the majority of Ireland internationals will sign on the dotted line for next season and beyond.
Ian Madigan looks set to leave, while Simon Zebo is understood to be close to an exit at Munster; but elsewhere the lure of playing for Ireland and improving the lot of the provincial teams remains strong.
Murray reiterating his commitment to the cause was an important re-affirmation of belief from one of the country's most important players, while the emergence of Stuart McCloskey and Josh van der Flier shows that there will be fresh blood available to Schmidt in the spring.
Wins for any of Leinster, Ulster and Munster could lift the mood this weekend, a turnaround in Johnny Sexton's form would also increase optimism that Irish rugby is on an upward, rather than downward curve.
Next week, Nucifora will conduct a rare media briefing to give his thoughts on the state of the nation and, no doubt, he won't share the pessimistic view that is pervasive among fans and pundits alike.
The performance director has some convincing to do. The outlook this Christmas looks as bleak as it has done in years.