Knockout looming for Irish sides ‘punching above their weight’
Success of academies key to taking on financial clout of English and French
IN sport, the one thing you can always expect is the unexpected. It's what has made the Heineken Cup so fantastically enjoyable.
When Leinster travelled to the Stade Chaban Delmas for last season's semi-final with Clermont, there was a real sense that the defending champions would find their Waterloo, that taking on the cream of French rugby in front of their home crowd would be one step too far.
But, against the odds, they triumphed. Similarly in the 2005-06 season, Leinster travelled to the south of France for a quarter-final clash with Toulouse and somehow won.
Victories like those recorded by Leinster -- and indeed Munster and Ulster -- are what have kept Ireland to the forefront of Europe's premier club competition.
During his time with Munster, Ireland coach Declan Kidney was forever extolling the virtues of his side for their ability to "punch above their weight" against clubs like French aristocrats Toulouse and Clermont and English clubs with serious financial clout like Leicester Tigers.
Indeed, for the 2009/10 season, Leicester's budget was estimated at €22m. Toulouse topped the table with their €27.4m budget while Clermont were operating off a more sober €20m. Last season, Toulouse's operating budget was €33m while Clermont's was closer to €25m.
The operating budget of the three main Irish professional sides is believed to be, roughly, somewhere between €5m and €7m per annum.
But that is not the only restriction that Irish teams must contend with and, ultimately, overcome. The strict rules governing the number of overseas players allowed stands at five per team.
It surely can't be a coincidence that of the 12 Heineken Cup games played last weekend, French and English teams won 11 of them. Ospreys were the only Celtic League side to triumph by defeating Toulouse.
Leinster's and Munster's losses could prove to be extremely costly because if they progress they will miss out on the financial benefits that accrue from hosting quarter-finals. The ERC take the gates from the semi-final stages on.
The differing budgets between the competing Heineken Cup sides is something Joe Schmidt is probably more knowledgeable than most about given his time with Clermont under Vern Cotter.
"The different budgets are, to an extent, telling in some regards," said Schmidt. "The Irish teams have punched really well with what they have got but they are a little bit more exposed when they have injuries.
"That would be all. At the top level, the Munsters, Ulster and Leinsters have done particularly well.
"Even Connacht have punched really well above their weight but they have got some key injuries as well. That's maybe the biggest difference, when you get some injuries and particularly in the same positions."
How Leinster -- and the other Irish sides -- cope when they lose their marquee players is a point that is well made. The obvious problem is the lack of strength in depth of quality players in the squad.
Leinster, of course, were without Brian O'Driscoll and Rob Kearney on Sunday. In O'Driscoll's stead went New Zealand native Andrew Goodman, who previously played for Tasman Makos in the ITM Cup, while Ian Madigan deputised for Kearney.
Madigan is a prodigious talent but he is an out-half being pressed into service out of position.
When Lee Byrne was forced from the pitch with an injury on Saturday, Clermont were able to spring former All Black Regan King from the bench and move Aurelien Rougerie to full-back.
When they lose a player, they have the ability to introduce a replacement of equal ability. Leinster clearly don't have that luxury.
"Clermont were missing a few players last year and, even now, Julien Malzieu has yet to come back from injury," said Schmidt.
"And when he does, it's not certain he will get into the side because Sitiveni Sivivatu and Napolioni Nalaga are playing so well on the wings."
Irish teams will never be able to match the free-spending French and English teams. The different priorities of the respective unions dictate that.
In Ireland, the professional sides are there to service the national team, as evidenced by Schmidt's "horse trading" with Declan Kidney this week as regards which internationals he will have available for the trip to Ravenhill.
"I had a really good chat with Declan on Sunday afternoon and there was a fair bit of horse trading, which is a really positive thing," said Schmidt.
"Once upon a time, it was very black and white. There are shades of grey, although there are still a few untouchables.
"There are the negotiable ones after that and it is good that we get a balance. He is probably conscious too that there are guys who haven't played a massive amount so far that are in that national squad and who probably need game time as much as they do rest."
Because the IRFU basically pay the wages they have first call on the players. That's different in both France and England, where players are paid by their clubs. And he who pays the piper calls the tune.
In this regard, a certain tension will always exist between the provinces and the national sides.
Even if this were not so and the provinces had first call on the players, it is merely stating the obvious to say they cannot hope to match the millionaire European clubs in terms of their spending power. That just isn't feasible.
The only avenue open to the Irish side is to use the available money they have to develop top-class academies so they continue to produce home-grown talent good enough to match the professional international journeymen.
Already the likes of Jonathan Sexton, Cian Healy, Luke Fitzgerald, Keith Earls, Paddy Jackson and Felix Jones have proven that Ireland has the raw materials to work with.
And the successes of Leinster, Munster and Ulster in winning six Heineken Cup titles between them shows that we, as a nation, can compete.
To be truthful there's little merit in compiling a team of international stars to win a trophy, the real success is if you can compete and win trophies with home-grown players. That must always be the principal aim.
The top Irish players are naturally imbued with strong competitive qualities and possess a healthy work ethic fired by natural courage and honesty of commitment.
But, unless Irish academies continue to produce indigenous talent of the likes of O'Driscoll, Paul O'Connell, Jamie Heaslip, Tommy Bowe, Eoin Reddan and indeed in greater numbers from within, the balance of power in Europe might continue to swing in the Anglo-French direction.