independent

Wednesday 16 April 2014

Wales' Operation Transformation spells trouble for Ireland

Gatland's men have dominated the Six Nations in recent years despite club sides consistently failing to fire in Heineken Cup

Wales wing Alex Cuthbert celebrates the opening try during the RBS Six Nations match between Wales and Italy
Wales wing Alex Cuthbert celebrates the opening try during the RBS Six Nations match between Wales and Italy

Forget Gatland versus O'Driscoll. Wales have enough problems fighting a civil war without worrying about engaging others in battle.

Their domestic game is in tatters, with the domestic club owners launching verbal grenades at the people who run the national game on an almost daily basis.

At Heineken Cup level, the record of Welsh sides is awful; simply pointing out that they have never won the competition instantly reflects their impotence at club level. The contrast to Ireland's six European title successes – five of them since 2006 – is stark.

And yet, so too is the difference between Wales' Heineken Cup performances and their Six Nations achievements since 2003. In spite of their wretched displays at European club level, Wales have celebrated four championships in that time – in stark contrast to Ireland's single title.

Having easily knocked Ireland out of the last World Cup, Wales hold the upper hand in recent internationals between the sides – even if below international level, Welsh sides crumble against the Irish, and everyone else, in the Heineken Cup.

In Ireland, it is more notable when attendance figures are below 10,000 for matches involving club sides, but there have been occasions in the recent past – even after they won only their second Grand Slam since World War II – that the national team have failed to sell out home games.

It's different in Wales. It is almost impossible to get a ticket for games in the Millennium Stadium these days; meanwhile, crowds hardly ever hit five figures for club games and sell-outs below national level are rare.

The presence of two Premier League sides in Swansea and Cardiff compounds the disinterest of the Welsh sporting public in their rugby regions and yet nobody watches their national soccer team.

Confused? You should be.

It is a compelling paradox – how a team that is so uncompetitive on one level of the sport can be so transformed when they pull on their national jersey.

It is nothing to do with money or numbers – if it were, France and England would dominate both competitions. Like much in sport, the reasons behind this are predicated less on logic than on other intangible, emotional factors.

CLUB WALES STRONGER THAN WALES' CLUBS

When Warren Gatland congregates with his Welsh players together in late January at their Vale of Glamorgan base, it is as if he enmeshes them within a cocoon from where they are immune to the self-destructive forces that wound them for the rest of the year.

This season, the civil war that has been raging between the Welsh regions and their Union bosses over the future political direction of the cash-strapped regional game has been unceasing.

And yet players and supporters will park their differences to engage in the national fervour that, if another championship is annexed this year, will propel Wales into the same stratosphere of success enjoyed by the heroes of the 1970s.

Fractured, factional forces combine once the players don the national shirt and Gatland's empathetic coaching philosophy ensures that, instead of his players wearily freighting enervating luggage from their day jobs, they are instead energised by the prospect of shedding distrust and discord by representing their country.

"When these Wales players go back to their regions they look poor," says one of those 1970s legends, JPR Williams."Why is that? It's down to a lack of spirit and almost a lack of interest in regional rugby. The great thing about this Welsh side is that they play like a very good club side.

"They play for each other and they're comfortable in what they're doing. They've seven weeks together and they are all mates. It's great to see at international level that we can still do well, but the coaching staff must take a lot of credit for that.

"Warren Gatland doesn't suffer fools gladly and success is down to him, his coaching staff and his players rather than the system."

Ireland, you would think, have a natural advantage over their rivals in that their provincial base is resoundingly solid and that has been reflected in a superlative record of success at Heineken Cup and Celtic League level.

However, they have struggled to consistently translate this provincial bonhomie into the national arena – the 2009 Grand Slam was only their second since World War II. Wales have managed two in recent years and 12 in all.

Since Rob Kearney addressed his colleagues in Enfield before his side, belatedly, won their second Slam in 2009, Ireland's players have repeatedly attempted, and predominantly failed, to address the reasons why provincial success cannot be translated into the international arena.

CUP OF CHEER NO BAROMETER OF SIX NATIONS SUCCESS

The country that has won the Six Nations has only twice in the last 10 years produced the Heineken Cup winners – although in successive years, 2009 and 2010, Ireland and France provided that season's Heineken Cup and Grand Slam winners.

That was an isolated occurrence, not part of a consistent trend. Ireland struggle to build on their Heineken Cup performances when it comes to the international arena.

As much as Irish coaches and players seek to engender a feel-good factor from provincial success, Irish rugby has often expressed a strange reluctance to try and derive a positive link between the two.

As recently as the eve of last year's championship opener against Wales, for example, Declan Kidney pointedly noted that European form had no relevance to the kick-off of the Six Nations.

The facts back up the assertion as Ireland, in stark contrast to Wales, are a relative failure in terms of maximising international returns from their provincial gains.

It is difficult to precisely pinpoint why this is so. Some would pinpoint the inordinate influence of some overseas players on Ireland's provincial successes, particularly when certain positions – tight-head prop, for example – have been dominated by non-Irish-qualified players.

A disparity in playing styles from province to province and coach to coach often undermines the international team – in 2009, it was noticeable that when Ireland played with a defined, simple game-plan, they achieved the most success.

WELSH BRAWN DRAIN HITS CLUB HARDER THAN COUNTRY

It's a simple fact that when Welsh players leave their clubs – and at the last count 35 have done so, led by a clutch of Lions stars such as Jamie Roberts, Leigh Halfpenny and Mike Phillips, they struggle to compete.

While Wales continue to produce a stream of talent, their best players are operating on foreign soil – in contrast, all bar Johnny Sexton in the Irish squad have remained at home and hence Ireland's provinces are far more competitive in European club competition.

At international level, the damage is limited as Gatland can still collect his players in camp and, although there are problems with early release from French clubs – as Ireland have discovered in Sexton's case – the personalities remain the same.

However, the payback is that the Welsh regions are horribly weakened by the flight of so many of the country's best players and they are simply unable to compete effectively with the best Ireland, England and France have to offer.

Ireland's ability to retain nearly all of their players on home soil is clearly a boon for the provinces' chances of success, as the recent records show. Translating those benefits into the international team have mostly proved elusive for Ireland.

REGIONS TO BE CHEERFUL – OR FEARFUL

After burying their heads for the first few years of professionalism, the IRFU watched in horror as their best players fled to England and there was serious consideration given by some in the game here to develop the game with privately-run clubs, not Union-funded provinces at its core.

Mercifully, the IRFU, led by Tom Kiernan, reversed this potentially disastrous narrative by establishing a system of central contracts in the late 1990s, placing the already extant provinces at the core of the game.

Thus were laid the foundations of Ireland's runaway Heineken Cup success story.

In contrast, the Welsh maintained the existence of a league involving clubs, but in 2003 they scrapped the system, removing famous names like Neath and Pontypridd and instigating new franchises.

Some have become extinct – Celtic Warriors – while others, such as the Ospreys, have struggled to locate themselves in the hearts and minds of a nation that had based their identity firmly on the club game.

In handing Lions captain Sam Warburton a central contract, the Welsh Union have exposed their secret admiration for the Irish provincial system and many feel that they may also scrap the current four-region format and, once again, redraw the regional map of Welsh rugby.

It is surely impossible for a culture to thrive upon foundations based on sand.

* * * * *

ULTIMATELY, the success of the Welsh international side in recent years has been achieved in spite of, not because of, a dysfunctional system that is so top-loaded it beggars belief that the whole system has not completely imploded.

Some will argue, as political civil war rages about the future direction of Welsh rugby, that it already has.

Nevertheless, the Welsh international team has continued to go from strength to strength, despite the perennial weakness of the structures beneath it.

In Ireland, although the international side has had notable successes on occasion, they have struggled to achieve consistent triumphs that would constitute something greater than the sum of its many successful parts.

"If we win the Championship, I guess everyone will forget everything else," says Welsh wing Alex Cuthbert.

"A lot of people will just forget about what is going on with the regions and just get on with supporting us through the Championship."

It's an approach that should fly in the face of sporting logic. But a tight-knit playing group, headed by sympathetic coaches and the adoption of a "club" mentality, ensures that, somehow, it remains successful.

It remains Ireland's challenge to reverse that trend.

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