Tuesday 16 January 2018

Survival the name of the game in ominous next phase

Irish provinces will find it harder to compete in Europe's changed rugby arena, says Jim Glennon

Brian O'Driscoll of Leinster, looks on during the Heineken Cup quarter final match between Toulon and Leinster
Brian O'Driscoll of Leinster, looks on during the Heineken Cup quarter final match between Toulon and Leinster

Jim Glennon

As we approach the latter stages of the season, we find ourselves presented not just with a second successive Heineken Cup final without Irish participation (except of course the match officials), but also a real sense of foreboding around what the future may hold for the provinces.

While this may be more of a reflection on the charmed existence we've enjoyed over the years, the less-than-spellbinding anticipation of sitting down to watch Toulon against Saracens, or Mourad Boudjellal versus Nigel Wray, brings into sharp focus the proposition that we are witnessing the end of a golden era for the Irish provinces.

Of course we shouldn't forget that Ireland won only our second Championship since 1985, but the fact remains that the disappointment caused by the exits from European competition casts a shadow right now. If the debate over the ultimate role of the provinces (to prepare players to compete well at international level) is one for another day, significant changes have been taking place, and not all above the radar, for some time.

Casting an eye around the four provinces, for example, one cannot but be struck by the extent of the personnel changes that have been taking place over the last 12 months. Individuals of the quality of Ronan O'Gara, Joe Schmidt, Isa Nacewa and Jonny Sexton have already exited, with the likes of Brian O'Driscoll, Leo Cullen, Johann Muller, John Afoa, Tom Court, Dan Parks, Gavin Duffy and Rob Penney set to join them in the coming weeks. The loss of so many individuals of such quality would be a major blow at any time, but at this particularly crucial juncture the potential impact of these losses shouldn't be underestimated.

Success in sport tends, by its nature, to be cyclical, but the accumulated riches of the franchise-owners scattered around England and France offer a significant degree of protection to their clubs against this. The current structure of the Irish game, which has served us so well, doesn't provide us with such insulation as we strive to keep pace.

With the imminent arrival of the Rugby Champions Cup – a rare instance of looking forward to a corporate sponsor purchasing the naming rights to a competition – the Irish franchises look set to fall even further behind in terms of spending power. Recent developments, at both European and domestic levels, driven by competition amongst broadcasters, mean the pot available continues to grow, on top of the existing owner-sourced funding and, in many French instances, generous funding from la mairie.

The English clubs unsurprisingly agreed to an increase in the negotiated salary cap across the Premiership, as well as facilitating one significant marquee signing per club. An obvious response to the continued strengthening of the French squads and the dearth of English success in the Heineken Cup, these initiatives have been facilitated by the arrival of BT Sport, the catalyst for so many other initiatives too. A telling example of the potential consequences from an Irish perspective is the imminent departure to Gloucester of Ulster's New Zealand World Cup-winning prop John Afoa – financial muscle attracts playing muscle.

If there has been precious little positive fallout for us from the turmoil of recent months, it is very much a case now of even more astute management of the cards which we've been dealt. The success of the provinces, while involving significant contributions from strategically-selected international imports on and off the field of play, was primarily constructed on the firm foundations laid by Irish personnel over many seasons.

Yes, we are now being forced to compete in an even tougher market place for the quality players we require, and the opposition are growing ever wealthier, but survival on minimal resources has been one of the

hallmarks of our success over recent years and indeed one of the traditional strengths of the Irish game. The innate rugby intelligence of the players we produce through our own system was always one of our great strengths. This production line will be more important than ever in the coming seasons, and the brains trust off the pitch will come under ever closer scrutiny.

The optimal management and deployment of our limited human and financial resources is now of paramount importance, so the appointment of David Nucifora as high performance director is timely in this regard. Change has now been forced upon us and the signs are indeed ominous from an Irish, and indeed Celtic, perspective. It's worth noting too that the current outlook bears remarkable similarity to that of 1995 when the game turned professional. Then, as now, the challenge appeared to be encapsulated in a single word – survival.

Little did we know then of the fantastic adventure on which we were about to embark. Fasten your seat belts, lifeboats at the ready, please.

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