Friday 15 December 2017

Tony Ward: fan power can help Leinster deny Clermont crucial bonus

Tony Ward

Tony Ward

The fallout from Mike McCarthy's pending transfer to Leinster continues. Inevitably there are accusations and recriminations from both sides. Most fair-minded folk can identify with the anger felt by our Cinderella province in its sterling attempts to finally gain admittance to the Irish rugby ball.

Connacht CEO Tom Sears' frustrated reaction was understandable. But this week's developments leave relations between the provinces frosty, to say the least and, dare we suggest, adds some spice to the Pro12 clash scheduled for the RDS this day fortnight.

It is unfair to suggest that Leinster target Connacht players specifically. Bear in mind that some of the players who have moved from west to east in recent years – and not necessarily to their personal advantage – had originally transferred to Connacht from Leinster. Bernard Jackman, Jamie Hagan and Fionn Carr certainly come to mind.

McCarthy does not fit that bill, but while the ultimate decision to move was his, nobody can blame him for wanting to better himself by way of a three-year contract with the reigning European champions at a twilight stage in his career.

So if the nub of the problem is not with the player and not with Leinster – who according to the IRFU "followed all the correct protocols" – then clearly it is the system and 'the protocols' that are in need of urgent review.


It is coming up to 10 years since a reduction in the number of professional entities in this country from four to three was first mooted by the powers that be.

In the end, the power and voice of the people won the bid for survival, with Connacht continuing, albeit with the label 'developmental' attached and an annual budget roughly half those of the other provinces.

Bit by bit they have done everything asked of them and more. The setting up of the Professional Game Board, the increasing numbers going through the turnstiles and the much-changed ground all added together to make the Connacht experience the attraction it now is.

As someone who hated everything about the College Road ground, I draw breath in admiration every time I visit for what is being achieved now.

In 2003, the decision to run with the developmental tag was agreed in the face of the dreaded alternative, which was extinction.

But that was then, this is now.

The growth over the last five years in underage and schools participation has increased dramatically, with Rice College in Westport for example bringing the Connacht (Junior) Schools Cup to Mayo two years in a row (2011 and 2012).

The game in Connacht has never been more popular, making now the time to re-assess the province's standing relative to the other three.

And if the governing body really believe the game here to be only as strong as its weakest link, it's clear where adjustment has to be made.

Therein lies the real fallout from the McCarthy case.

The message to talented young players coming through the Connacht Academy appears to be that the club they aspire to play for is merely a shop window from which they can hope to attract better offers elsewhere. If the authorities fail to see what is wrong with this message, then please put this wounded animal out of its misery now.

It's all very well for Leinster coach Joe Schmidt to sympathise with Connacht and then in the next breath suggest, "the challenge for Connacht is to build an environment where people choose to stay. It's challenging when important players do leave but they have some exciting young players there – if they can keep them excited and interested."

A fairer budget and a more level playing field would sure help. However, it seems they're playing up Patrick's Hill into a raging gale and with two men in the bin.

The McCarthy affair must provide the catalyst for change and a more equitable division of resources, based on progress and potential. It's the least Connacht deserve.

On the field it's all to play for at the Aviva Stadium this afternoon and at Vicarage Road tomorrow. Leinster were superb in defeat last Sunday and, on the assumption they tighten the line-out, I take the Aviva factor to kick in and Leinster to deny Clermont a crucial losing bonus point.

A four-try return for the reigning champions would be a big ask given the quality of opposition, but a repeat of last weekend's intensity and anything is possible.

I saw some former Munster player in midweek suggest the visit to north London back in 1999 marked the beginning of the red rise as a European superpower.

I would echo that, as 35-34 and 31-30 in the Thomond return marked two exceptionally memorable games.

I was with the team on that trek and one abiding memory was on the day before the game, going along with Declan Kidney, Niall O'Donovan, Mick Galwey, Peter Clohessy, Alan Quinlan and a dozen or so other players to see Sunderland play Watford in the English Premiership on the same Vicarage Road pitch.

While the Black Cats were warming up Quinny (Alan), as only he could, called Quinny (Niall) across and the big Perrystown man, despite being uncomfortably close to kick-off, was only too delighted to oblige, such was his interest, even at that embryonic stage, in everything Munster.

It was a small gesture but massively appreciated (and needless to say used by Kidney in the team talk) as the Munster Heineken Cup story began in earnest the following afternoon.

It was a 66-64 scoreline over the two spellbinding games in '99 but five penalties to three in Limerick last Saturday. Let's be honest, 3-0 would be just dandy again tomorrow.

Realistically, Sarries should be in control on their own patch but I never bet against Munster.

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