Saturday 24 February 2018

Back in familiar territory

Glasgow should be tricky foes for Rob Kearney and co, says Brendan Fanning

Rob Kearney: 'I was out for a long time and it probably freshened me up a bit and reinvigorated my hunger as well.' Photo: Paul Mohan
Rob Kearney: 'I was out for a long time and it probably freshened me up a bit and reinvigorated my hunger as well.' Photo: Paul Mohan

Not for the first time since the turn of the century Scottish rugby is going through a period of painful introspection. The latest bout started when they made an unusually early exit from the World Cup. And it gathered pace 10 days ago when it was announced by Glasgow that Richie Gray, the poster boy of the game in that part of the world, was joining the exodus south.

The news of Gray's departure was followed immediately by the virtual presumption he would be followed by back-rower John Barclay. And Chris Cusiter, who only came home because his dad was ill, is expected to catch a flight somewhere at the end of the season. All of which adds more gloom to a picture of Scottish rugby being on its uppers, edging closer all the time to a debate about the usefulness of having a pro game at all below international level.

The record of Edinburgh and Glasgow in Europe is pitiful, which makes the start of both teams this season all the more welcome. Glasgow have got out of their pool once in 12 attempts, and that was only as far as a quarter-final play-off (it was a five-pool competition in 1997/'98), which they lost. And Edinburgh have managed one escape in 14 attempts, ending in defeat by Toulouse. That was seven years ago. Their win over Racing on Friday now gives them a great chance of closing the gap.

If the stats weren't bad enough there was the damning indictment of Gray choosing not only to leave for less money -- a shortage of cash was cited as the principal reason for the others who flew the coop -- but to go to Sale, who have no record of consistency in the English game.

"It's not about going to Sale but why choose the English premiership over Scottish rugby?" says Mark Dodson, the new chief executive at the SRU. "Clearly people have voted with their feet in the past and continue to do so now. What we have to do is make it so attractive here that the players don't want to leave. You can't blame the players for wanting to leave until we get our act together and make our pro teams the place where they want to play their rugby."

To that end, Glasgow at last are taking the rugby posts out of Firhill, the least attractive and worst attended venue on the Pro12 circuit, and moving to a brighter home in Scotstoun, albeit one with a running track around the pitch. The stadium was reopened last year after wholesale renovation and is in the city's West End. Certainly it beats the drabness of Firhill which at least had the advantage of turning off opponents. As Rob Kearney puts it: "Sometimes it can be a bit difficult going away to your Edinburghs (Murrayfield is always empty) and your Firhills and you don't have that crowd watching and you don't have the tv -- the prime-time slots and so on -- it is a little bit more difficult to get yourself up for those games."

Chances are Leinster will be up for this one however. The lunchtime slot is not ideal, but Glasgow's form this season demands respect. Aside from ensuring Leinster's unbeaten run at the RDS wouldn't extend beyond September, with an excellent league win there two months ago, they have five wins on the trot in all competitions which includes their first successful start to a Heineken campaign since beating Ulster in 1997/'98.

True, they were lucky enough against Bath last weekend but Dodson is upbeat about the future of the pro teams in Scotland and sees common ground with Ireland. He is especially envious of the tax regime that operates here for players who stay at home instead of chasing the dollar abroad.

"You must see the parallels there," he says. "Ireland had their 'never again' moment in 1999 when they failed to qualify for the World Cup quarter-finals and we have just had ours. They repatriated their best players after that and we are trying to do the same. We are trying to build something here. Take the tax break away and you have a lot more in common between the two clubs than you have differences.

"From 2012 to 2015 is the next phase and we are taking this four-year period very, very seriously and we intend to be a completely different place in 2015 than we are now. We might not be winning World Cups in that time but we will be a true power in rugby."

Not so sure about that bit, unless the Scots manage to overhaul their development systems to get more quality players through. Munster may still be in turmoil in this regard, but Leinster's system is humming along and its structure should protect against the downside of the production cycle. And their success keeps the cash coming in to facilitate quality recruitment.

"We will give the pro teams what they need to win silverware and be successful," Dodson says. "They have to have improved budgets so that they can compete at the level of the premiership clubs. We also have to make sure that they have the best coaching talent available to them and if that means supplementing the existing pool then that's what we're going to do. What I'm trying to build in a broader sense is a no-excuses culture in our pro teams."

This sounds like Ireland a while back. Probably before Rob Kearney was even sitting his Junior Cert. He is as good an example as any of the new breed, and it's a measure of where Leinster are that they could win two European titles with him not being fit enough to start the final in 2009, and missing last season's success altogether. The absence has made him appreciate how good it is to be fit and flying.

"It always does," he says. "It's important to take a step back from the game sometimes and I had that. I was out for a long time and it probably freshened me up a bit and reinvigorated my hunger as well. Although you might hate to say it but you do kind of take things for granted a little bit at times and being away out of the game probably helped me appreciate it more, just knowing that it can be taken from you so quickly and team success goes on without you, and you can be forgotten. There were times last year, whether you liked it or not, you were forgotten, and especially if there is someone in your position doing so well so you do learn a lot."

That someone was Isa Nacewa who, without going over the top about it, was mostly exceptional. This poses a dilemma of sorts for Joe Schmidt. Between Kearney, Nacewa and Luke Fitzgerald, he has three

players who like the idea of 15 on their back and two of them -- Kearney and Nacewa, who actually want to wear it running onto the field. Leinster do a bit of mixing and matching once the whistle goes but clearly there are international ramifications to Kearney getting the nod here, and he appreciates the coach's faith.

"I had a chat to Joe about it last year when I was out injured," he says. "I didn't have too many worries but you are never fully convinced. I suppose it is a little bit of an affirmation as well but if you look at how our back three operates there's a lot of movement around. I found myself on the wing quite a few times at the weekend, whether I was looking for breathers or I found myself there. I think as a back three we're good enough to be able to alternate.

"I think his (Nacewa) counter-attacking skills obviously are pretty good. It's difficult as well when you're playing. I watched huge amounts of him last year in Magners League where defensively lines aren't exactly the same and so on. Of course you learn from a lot of different players and we know just exactly how good Isa can counter-attack."

And what of the third Musketeer, Luke Fitzgerald?

"Yeah, we'd a little chat about it on the plane home after the game the other night. It's a difficult thing: he's in a tough situation but he's reacted really admirably to it. He was straight back playing for Leinster six days later which again is difficult because other players might shy away from that too. And he's got his form back as well. He looks really sharp.

"I suppose I sort of said to him that everyone has forgotten about the World Cup now; no one's talking about it; we've moved on. Everything is building towards Heineken Cup and Six Nations now. His form is back to his best and I've no doubt he'll be back in the mix again come the Six Nations."

Putting Glasgow to the sword is the next step on that road. The Scots clearly haven't impressed the bookies too much -- they have a 16-point start on the handicap -- but going to the RDS is a familiar spin for them. There is no fear of the unknown as might be the case with a French or even English side. And their recent memories of Dublin 4 are all good. Leinster need to be very careful about this one.

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