Saturday 16 December 2017

Cup that cheers makes Irish situation the envy of Europe

The Heineken Cup has helped rugby fill the gap in Irish sport, says Brendan Fanning

On RTE's Morning Ireland last Thursday the mayor of Limerick, Cllr Jim Long, was interviewed about his plan for thanking Ronan O'Gara for all his heroics in a red jersey. Jim reckoned that the perfect way to mark the astonishing contribution of Munster's outhalf would be to display his right boot in a glass case at a suitably prominent point in the city.

He hadn't got around to asking him yet, but we feel certain the answer will be yes, for not only is O'Gara generous with giving away valuable items like this, he is also keen on having his achievements recognised.

If the mayor was to continue the theme, his corpo could put together a range of other suitable monuments to Munster's special moments. Virtually all of them you suspect would be linked to the Heineken Cup. In the wake of O'Gara's eight days that fundamentally altered the complexion of the group, much time and space in the media has been devoted to the special relationship between Munster and Europe. It's not just Munster of course, for the rise of Irish rugby has come on the back of this competition. In the list of those with most to be thankful for, none of the other countries comes close.

For some it's as if it never kicked off. Our fellow Celts for example. A week ago in the RDS we thought that Glasgow might build on their promising start to the season and make life awkward for the champions. The only awkwardness was in the silence of the crowd after 30 minutes by which stage the contest was over.

Wales grabbed the headlines with the smash-and-grab raid by the Scarlets in Northampton, and the win by Cardiff over London Irish, but inferring from this that Wales' World Cup exploits would spark success in the Heineken is a stretch.

First though, the Scots. In these pages last week we quoted new SRU boss Mark Dodson and how he looks longingly at aspects of the Irish game. Top of the list is the tax break which allows Irish players who finish their careers here to claim 40 per cent back on the tax they paid in this jurisdiction. This clawback can be taken from a maximum of nine years of their highest earnings in Ireland. Of course if they chose to go abroad then they lose out on the maximum; and if they did that and don't finish their career here then they get nothing at all. It's a strong incentive to stay, at least for those in Leinster, Munster and Connacht who enjoy the option -- it doesn't apply to Ulster.

Maybe this is something the Scots can take up with Downing Street. Closer to home however they have a handicap that will never be sorted: football. The greatest single facilitator for rugby in Ireland has been the absence of professional soccer here. The national obsession with Gaelic games calms down in winter -- well, aside from the feral stuff in club finals -- and by the time it gathers pace again in summer rugby is almost done and dusted and fans can, and do, switch from one to the other.

The Scots are breaking their backsides raising the numbers at grassroots, and doing it impressively: from January 2006 to January 2011 they have grown the club game from 15,189 to 28,800, a staggering 90 per cent jump. We had nothing like that here, but six years earlier Munster got to their first Heineken Cup final so the year-on-year growth thereafter was warmed by the glow from a professional game that was glamorous and successful.

They don't have that in Scotland where for example you can't follow Edinburgh and either Hibs or Hearts at the same time. If you live in Ireland's capital however, until not long ago the largest conurbation in Western Europe without pro sport, you can get full value from your season ticket at Leinster and then move seamlessly to follow the Dubs.

At least in Wales they have had minor European success. Cardiff won the Amlin in 2010, and along with the Scarlets and Ospreys they know what it is like to get out of the Heineken pools in one piece. Check out their gate returns however: In Round 1 this season 7,860 watched the Scarlets against Castres (capacity 15,180) which was more than 2,000 down on last season at the same time; 7,732 showed for Ospreys versus Biarritz (20,520), down from 12,437 last season. In Round 2 there were 10,358 present for Cardiff's (26,828) win over London Irish. That's three returns of less than 50 per cent.

There is a disconnect between the national side and the regions, whose noses are out of joint at hardly seeing their players who live most of the year in Gattyland.

When Warren Gatland's side line out against Australia in the Millennium next weekend it will be their 17th Test this year, and more than 50,000 will pay to watch it. His players have spent 234 days on national duty in that time. When his team prepare to play, they get 13 days in which to do it. See the impact on the Welsh teams in the Pro 12 in the RDS and Ravenhill and Swansea next Friday and Saturday nights. They will be decimated, and the success of Wales in the World Cup means nothing will change. The tenth anniversary of Welsh rugby going regional rolls around next year, and success in Europe won't be one of its spin-offs.

We have a mental image of Wales, illustrated by huge crowds flocking to see the old club derbies between the Cardiffs and Pontypools. The most hyped of all those clashes was in the early '80s -- Terry Holmes and David Bishop going toe to toe in the Arms Park -- and saw the gates locked with 14,000 inside. But it wasn't as if there were as many again trying to get in.

Rugby may be the national game in Wales but it is not the most popular. And outside of South Wales it's just one of the herd. Meantime, inside that heartland the competition for spectator interest is huge. With a population of 1.5 million in that part of the country there are the four regional rugby teams, two football clubs, an ice hockey outfit and one cricket club. All of them are professional, and of that lot the football operations in Cardiff and Swansea are top of the heap, drawing double the gates of their rugby brethren. In Wales, it's as if there is a fifth region, by a distance more popular than the rest combined.

France is a different story. While next door in Italy the growth of two competitive franchises it just starting -- and it will bear fruit sooner than you think -- the French are going through the roof. The map of the Top 14 is being redrawn.

Financial backers there have made the decision that involvement makes more sense when it's with a big city team. Watch Lyon for example. Or Grenoble, who will make a charge to get out of Pro D2 this season.

This weekend they moved their derby game with Bourgoin to the local soccer stadium and sold out its 21,000 capacity without breaking sweat. The club has a catchment area of 800,000 people, and the soccer team are going down the pan.

Then there is Paris. When the Heineken Cup started in 1995, Stade Francais weren't at the table and Racing not even in the room. These two clubs contested the first French Championship final over a century ago but only now have they a foothold in the capital which for years was off the rugby map. Gradually the small-town clubs are being squeezed out of the picture.

The implications of this for the Heineken Cup are interesting. Initially those who battled to get into the Top 14 will be solely exercised with staying there, but in time a core of huge clubs will emerge, big enough to wage war on the European as well as domestic fronts.

England, meanwhile, have won six of the 16 Heineken titles and been runners-up in four other finals. They moan about having to crawl through barbed wire every year just to qualify, but it means a great deal to them to make that journey. They whinge also about us, not just because for years we didn't have to go through a qualifying process, and even now it's not exactly rigorous, but because Ireland can go out of their way to bring players to the tournament in peak condition. And not just that, but with a fair wedge of cash behind them.

France have led the way with whopping player salaries, but Ireland have been very generous to their overseas contingent as well as their international crew. BJ Botha, for example, is understood to be pulling down more than €400k for making the switch south from Ulster, who themselves know how to spend. We reckon overseas players get highly excited if they hear David Humphreys is holding on line one.

Ireland don't have the restriction of the salary cap that exists in England (€4.5m) so it's likely that Munster, Leinster and Ulster have bigger budgets, but the chances are they will come under strain in the near future. For the past few months the IRFU have been trawling through the Premiership clubs seeing who is paying what, and will look to pull their horns in. This will mean fewer players on national contracts, in which case the provinces will have to find the cash to pay them. And that will lead to harder negotiating with players' agents.

You would imagine the union will be wiser too about media splashes revealing that Joe Bloggs is attracting cross-channel interest, just as his Ireland contract is due for renewal. They can point to the recession, and the tax break, and the player welfare here, and the easy access to the Heineken Cup which has brought them to where they are.

And the prospect of having their boots put in a glass case on main street. It is an attractive combination.

Sunday Indo Sport

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