Sport Champions Cup

Saturday 22 September 2018

Comment: Money has never guaranteed success in Europe as class will always prevail

Analysis

Cullen: Preparing for Euro final. Photo: Sportsfile
Cullen: Preparing for Euro final. Photo: Sportsfile
David Kelly

David Kelly

The dissolution of the Heineken Cup in 2014 prompted many to issue panicked predictions that the recent dominance of the Irish provinces would, at a stroke a pen, disappear forever.

Not only that, the pernicious Albion and perfidious French had supposedly concocted the cunning plan to ensure that the pesky Celts - well, just Paddy, in fact, because Jock and Taff could hardly tie their own bootlaces together in Europe - were cleared from the field of play altogether.

"The gap is only going to widen," they screamed. "The IRFU's luck has run out," they wailed. "We'll lose interest and the competition will wither away and die!" they bawled. "The odds are loaded heavily against us!" they howled.

This, we were warned, would be the interminable future. No room for Paddy, Jock or Taff. And poor Giuseppi could take a hike, too.

And so Toulon swept all before them much to the smug self-satisfaction of those suspicious of a carve-up.

Toulon were hailed by many as the 'galacticos' but it was never a term of endearment, rather a sneering put-down from those reeling from the shock that professionalism and money were bed-fellows. Then came Saracens' double, franking the self-fulfilling prophecy of the doom-mongers that the Anglo-French era of perpetual domination was upon us.

Ireland's dominance of European competition was suddenly and swiftly consigned to a sepia-tinted past.

The future was heralded, from a narrowly parochial perspective, as one swamped by nefarious, financially-doped monstrosities who would perennially sweep all-comers aside, with the 2016 absence of any Irish side in the quarter-finals deemed to be the definitive turning point in the balance of power.

That the IRFU had welcomed the change in format was hastily hushed amidst the vocal out-pouring of angst that decreed the restructuring of the Champions Cup had, all of itself, suddenly raised the drawbridge and marooned Irish rugby.

It was a convenient narrative at the time, copper-fastening the philosophical differences between countries where privately-owned clubs held sway and where the sport's revenue streams were superior based on TV monies - England and France - and those that weren't - Ireland, Scotland and Wales.

That such a disparity was seemingly eradicated at international level was conveniently ignored as the supposition held firm; Irish clubs, in particular, would never again dine at the top table of European rugby.

The financial evidence was held up as incontrovertible proof that the old order would be supplanted by a new one; French clubs could earn €97m annually from their TV rights, English clubs €50m and the then PRO12 a mere €14m between them?

How could the Irish possibly compete?

The answer was the same as it always had been, ever since Munster toppled Toulouse in 2006 despite the French side boasting a player budget of at least six times that of their conquerors.

Develop better players, buy smarter and trust in quality coaching.

That this largely didn't occur in the last six years explains the Irish absence from a European final until now; the financial disparity might have undermined these difficulties but it hardly proved such a decisive factor.

If that were the case, the English and French clubs would have continued now to dominate the latter stages of European competition but they didn't.

During Toulon's three-in-a-row, they were occasionally vulnerable. They never managed a clean sweep in the pool stages and always advanced to the quarter-finals without ever claiming top seeding.

Both Leinster and Munster had chances to derail the Toulon juggernaut during their hat-trick run of titles.

The reason they did not was achingly simple. They weren't good enough. And the reason no Irish club returned to the pinnacle was exactly the same.

Irish provinces made expensive mistakes during the drought, from failing to produce players in key positions to a clutch of hapless mis-steps in the transfer market.

Coaching transition at Munster was unwieldy, at Ulster it was unfathomable and even Leinster stuttered following the departure of Joe Schmidt until the inspired arranged marriage between Leo Cullen and Stuart Lancaster.

Leinster, for they have paved the way, returned to brass tacks and tightened up their recruitment, unfurling many of the class of 2018 who backboned Ireland's Grand Slam triumph. Fast forward to this season and each of those clubs have been thwarted by Irish clubs; Toulon by Munster, Saracens by Leinster.

Money does not always guarantee success in professional sport. A wealth of experience and application can bridge any financial gap.

And, for all that some like to plead penury, they have still been able to afford a highly-paid superstar from New Zealand, James Lowe, who may not even claim a place in tomorrow's squad.

Leinster also have the benefit of offloading the responsibility of the wages for their centrally contracted stars, too.

If Leinster win tomorrow, it will have nothing to do with the luxury gap. Rather, they will have proved that this year they were the best in show.

Irish Independent

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