Saturday 21 January 2017

Tony Ward: Provinces can put the style and smile back into Irish game

Published 14/11/2015 | 02:30

Leinster head coach Leo Cullen
Leinster head coach Leo Cullen

I suspect I'm speaking for many out there when I say that in rugby terms I'm down. Maybe it's time-of-year related, the nights closing in, winter on the way, all that sort of thing.

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Taking the more obvious symptoms on board, maybe it's time to be a little more honest and face the fact that our sudden World Cup exit and the manner of it has knocked the fizz out of every one of us.

We always knew the Puma match-up was going to be 50-50 but having succeeded in avoiding the All Blacks in the last eight, even minus a third of our starting line-up, we still felt a further fortnight in London beckoned.

Losing in Cardiff hurt us much more than we care to admit and the contrast in playing styles added a dose of reality that hurt this proud sporting nation even more.

Yes, rugby is still number four in the pecking order but interest is growing and the gap closing. Losing to Argentina wasn't the end of the world but at the time and in the immediate aftermath it sure felt that way.

However, the remedy for our post-World Cup malaise may be at hand. The European Champions Cup Rugby 2015/2016 season kicks into gear this weekend with perfect timing. This competition - despite the best efforts of club owners to massacre it - is the biggest single plus to emerge from the 1995 Paris Accord.

Established

Twenty years on and though the name has changed this is the greatest rugby competition outside of Rugby World Cup and the Six Nations. Note I didn't say the best in terms of skill and ambition as both Super Rugby and the Rugby Championship lead that particular race hands down.

But in terms of passion and cross-border tribalism, Champions Cup Rugby sets the standard. Unfortunately, in recent seasons money has dictated the agenda and interest has wavered but not waned on the back of it.

From an Irish perspective, these are challenging times and in this 2015-'16 tournament more than any other.

Attendances at domestic Pro12 matches remain reasonably consistent, although Thomond Park for the Glasgow and Ulster games had an uncomfortable feel despite the atmosphere created in a stadium about two-thirds short of its maximum capacity.

For coaches, players and spectators, this particular Champions Cup season has a watershed element.

For players and specifically the national elite not laid up through injury, it is the chance to exorcise all the disappointment garnered on the opposite side of the Irish Sea.

Let's be brutally honest again. Take out the French game at the Millennium and England 2015 was a rugby tournament best forgotten from an Irish viewpoint.

So it's vital that we pick ourselves up quickly - and even better if it comes with home comforts attached. So pity Ulster on the road to Oyonnax for their first game in Europe. And it's even worse still for Connacht who are on Challenge Cup duty in outer Siberia!

By contrast, Munster entertain Treviso today in Thomond, while Leinster start with a Sunday lunchtime sizzler against Wasps.

The RDS will be heaving, that bit is guaranteed, but for the Munster faithful, the loyalty gauntlet is being well and truly laid down given the opposition.

We know it will be jam-packed for the visit of Leicester in a month's time but so too should it be later today.

For coaches Pat Lam, Neil Doak (by extension Les Kiss), Anthony Foley and Leo Cullen (belo), this is their opportunity to show through their charges that lessons from the last couple of months have been learnt.

No one is expecting miracles or any sea change in playing style just some hints of a little more expansive play and ambition appropriate to the time.

We're hoping to see a little more fluidity and variation in channels of attack, allied to that dirty word 'offload' becoming a more comfortable part of the Irish rugby lexicon.

As for the players, advice from without and within should centre on enjoyment. We're not saying abandon systems or ignore coaches - just play the game as it was originally intended when attacking space and shifting opposition defensive alignment.

And if that sounds overly simplistic then so it should because in essence that is what this game based on: picking up the ball and running with it.

There is no reason why we cannot have a three-from-three winning return in the premier competition and with a modicum of style attached.

Irish Independent

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