Sport Rugby

Saturday 25 March 2017

Seas apart: Irish clubs contonue to lord it over English rivals

Even though 21st century Irish folk are supposed to be mature enough to ignore a certain historical relationship too often corroded by republican propaganda, it still gladdens the heart to see Ireland trump its English neighbours on the sports field.

The bare statistics don't lie -- two of Ireland's three Heineken Cup participants have qualified for the knock-out stages; for England, a measly one from seven progressed. In a competition which ruthlessly exposes flaws, there is little argument that the eight quarter-finalists deserve their place. And still the English scratch their heads in bemusement and the seemingly damned unfairness of it all.

One caveat should be entered: all sport is cyclical. It is no coincidence that in the year of a Paris final, 50pc of the quarter-finalists are French. Last year, only Toulouse survived the pool stages before quarter-final defeat left France without a semi-finalist for the second time in three years.

Then, it was roundly agreed that the dastardly unpredictable French were more interested in domestic fare and cocked a snook at the H Cup.

Guinness Premiership chief executive Mark McCafferty rightly argues that if the English clubs underachieve in Europe again next term -- also World Cup year, as it happens -- then there may be cause for anguish.

Still, that hasn't stopped a sense of gloating inflating Irish hearts as the bubble of self-congratulation emanating from the Guinness Premiership was so embarrassingly deflated in the greatest club competition in world rugby.

It is their worst quarter-final return in the history of the Heineken Cup; even in the boycott season of 1998-99, they could have claimed some credit for providing Ulster their Liverpool-born points machine Simon Mason.

Trumpeting

The theme has become a familiar one in recent times: trumpeting of English flavours of the month (in this instance, Delon Armitage reprised a role previously played by Charlie Hodgson, Danny Cipriani, Chris Ashton and many others), followed by a hapless inability of said player to match expectations.

And then all the blame is laid squarely on the salary cap. Or relegation. Or the French Top 14 budgets. Or overseas players. Or the fact that the Magners League sides have it easy. It's an argument as predictably dull as a wet Tuesday evening in Milton Keynes.

Very rarely do the inquisitors glance in the mirror. A nation who deemed Lesley Vainikolo worthy of international status clearly has little patience for introspection.

London Irish coach Toby Booth is an engaging fellow and, uniquely among his compatriots, not only shares enlightened views on how the game should be played but, more often than not, puts them into practice.

Arguably, that is why the Exiles exited this competition: they were severely punished, twice, against Scarlets for their vain extravagance.

Booth slammed the conservative nature of so many in his league -- only Guantanamo Bay inmates should be required to sit through a Saracens match -- and that's where the real truth lies. Sadly, though, he ultimately sided with the jaded argument of Little England.

"Either we're not good enough, or the attritional element of a tournament as tough and relentless as the Premiership is taking its toll," he said.

"There is a matrix of factors at work here but, on the whole, I'd go for the second answer, especially when you add in squad sizes, the constraints of the salary cap, the injury effects of the current breakdown law and other bits and pieces. It's clear to me that, if you're playing in the Magners League rather than the Premiership or the French Top 14, it's easier to manage a European campaign."

Having tossed that hoary old chestnut into the debate, it was no surprise to witness Leinster coach Michael Cheika hurl it back at him with all the ferocity of a Glenn McGrath bouncer.

"No I don't think it gives us an advantage," he immediately fired back when asked whether sides like Munster and Leinster had it "easier" in relation to their English counterparts.

"What do you prefer? Your players not playing lots of games and being fresh, or not having any lead-time into matches? Before the first-round matches, both Leinster and Munster had 10 Lions players heading into the tournament who hadn't played together once; some hadn't played at all.

"Each system has its benefits and its disadvantages and I think you've just got to roll with the punches and prepare for what you've got. We've got to play a lot of games without players in the league, and our league is very important to us.

"There are downsides and upsides to both systems. You've just got to do your best to be successful in the environment, because that's the system, so plan for it."

Cheika's point is utterly valid. It is difficult to forget the wailing and gnashing of teeth that accompanied opening-round Heineken Cup pool defeats for both Leinster and Munster -- as had also happened following a Lions tour four years ago. Last season, Leinster tottered before Christmas and supporters were calling for the coach's head; so, too, with Munster coach Tony McGahan this term.

This exposed the inherent risk attendant in the IRFU's delicate husbanding of its elite playing resources. It's a risky business but the rewards have been self-evident.

The policy serves both international and provincial sides, even if it always seems slightly skewed at the start of a campaign; thankfully, recent evidence demonstrates that provincial and international teams feed off each other once the business end of the campaign rolls into view.

The English have cottoned on to this, belatedly engaging club and country in an agreement which compensates the clubs for obligatory rest periods for their players.

French clubs will always have large budgets and no country is immune from their plundering.

Irish rugby would not own a Grand Slam had Brian O'Driscoll decided to take the plunge in Biarritz.

That he remained demonstrated the effectiveness of the IRFU's appreciation of their primary assets.

Irish players perform an average of about a dozen games less than their English counterparts: they are centrally contracted, based in their own country and embark upon every campaign without the spectre of relegation haunting them.

For all that, there is a simpler reason why Ireland's players have recently out-performed England's -- even when they have tried to cheat -- on the European stage. At the moment, they're just better.

Irish Independent

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