Sunday 25 February 2018

Competing in Europe has changed game from hobby for some into a sport the majority enjoy

Was I alone in detecting the slightest hint of fatigue in Paul O'Connell's responses to the questions posed to him at last week's launch of the Heineken Cup? The Rugby World Cup may have come and gone but its influence will undoubtedly continue to cast a long shadow over the season.

In fairness to O'Connell, he and his Munster colleagues did their best to overcome any lingering World Cup hangovers on Friday night against Leinster, in terms of their physicality at any rate. The questions for me are how long will they be able to maintain that standard for the European challenges ahead and, specifically, are they capable of rising to the challenge presented by Northampton Saints at Thomond Park next weekend?

Interestingly, his second-row partner Donncha O'Callaghan was substituted after 50 minutes on Friday, with an obvious eye on the part of coach Tony McGahan to next weekend, while Brian O'Driscoll's role as Leinster's water carrier can also be attributed largely to his recent Antipodean endeavours.

The 11-week period commencing this week is, for all four provinces, the defining one of their season -- even if for differing reasons.

For the first time, Connacht will compete at the top table and will be judged by the same standards as all other participants; they're not in there by grace and favour of anyone, they've earned it and good luck to them. But they must be competitive on the field, and the rugby and wider sporting public of the west must rally to their cause. In a pool with Gloucester, Conor O'Shea's high-riding Harlequins and four-time tournament winners Toulouse, Connacht will be delighted if they can manage a home win, a feat that may be beyond them.

Ulster made something of a comeback last season when they reached the knockout stage for the first time in 11 years. Despite being deprived the services of Springbok scrumhalf Ruan Pienaar, for the early rounds at least, they'll be hopeful of repeating last year's feat.

To do so however they may well need home and away wins against both Clermont and Aironi as Leicester's reputation hasn't been constructed on a foundation of generosity, and they'll always be at the back of the queue for registration as a charitable institution. Rory Best's men will be doing very well to emulate last year's achievement.

Munster, twice winners in the last five years, may have their most favourable draw for some time, but it comes at a time when they could do with every possible advantage. The ground-breaking glory days may be gone, but fortune favours the brave and their bravery has never been in doubt.

Whatever about the Saints, and next weekend is crucial in that regard, Llanelli Scarlets and Castres are both potential home and away doubles. They may well need to be because Northampton, particularly after last season's final collapse against Leinster, will believe themselves capable of going one better next May, starting in Thomond next week.

Leinster have one of their most favourable draws yet. They'll be near the top of everyone's list of potential winners. It will be a major surprise, and massive disappointment, if they fail to do so. Glasgow are one of the weaker Pro12 teams, Bath very much a middle-of-the-road Premiership side, and Montpellier a totally unknown quantity at this level. A win in France will immediately put the champions firmly in their pool's driving seat and it is well within their compass, even without the talismanic O'Driscoll.

The World Cup hangover will affect each of the competing sides, and not equally either. Management teams will be tested and the better ones will come into their own. Man-management and injury-rehab skills will be at a premium. In this regard, the Irish should be at an advantage in that it is generally accepted that player-welfare standards here are ahead of our competitors in the annual war of attrition that is the professional rugby season.

Since its inauguration in 1995, the competition has transformed rugby in Europe, and in Ireland especially. It's interesting to recall that the three games played on the opening day, a Tuesday in November, were Farul Constanta (Romania) v Toulouse, Munster v Swansea, and Rugby Milano v Leinster; three teams which have since won the competition eight times between them against three others since gone out of business. There were 45,000 in Lansdowne Road on Friday night for a televised fixture which, back then, wouldn't have attracted one tenth of that number for a Saturday afternoon game, or the television companies for that matter. A hobby for a minority has become a sport for the majority.

There have been massive changes on-field too, and not all for the better. The role of the referee and his team is under scrutiny as never before. Honest mistakes will be forgiven, but repetition stretches goodwill beyond breaking point. Too many mistakes have been repeated, and that applies to those tasked with the appointment of officials as much as to the officials themselves.

These mistakes need to be cut out, and fast, before the game suffers lasting damage. One other item for my wish list: that we're spared the spectacle of manifestly injured players being allowed, and in some instances encouraged, to continue playing when doing so is incurring further risk. The game has enough inherent dangers as it stands without unnecessarily creating more. Otherwise, let's look forward to another great competition, with great players, and great winners, preferably Irish.

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