George Hook: Connacht are struggling on and off the field -- it's time to pull the plug
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The last eight of the Heineken Cup has been decided and the competition goes into hibernation until April. By the time the knockout stages take place, European rugby may be fractured beyond repair and players like Sean O'Brien who stayed in Ireland to win trophies may find that there is nothing worthwhile to be won.
This year's competition resembles the First World War, where exhausted and demoralised armies fought for something they no longer believed in. The arrival of the enthusiastic Americans swung the contest as the naive 'dough boys' -- by dint of numbers and commitment and a scant regard for casualties -- amazed the dispirited combatants.
This time around there are two wars going on in European rugby: this year's competition and the more important contest behind closed doors -- a battle that seems set to finish in the courts.
In as much as we can divine, the English are obdurate and expect the Welsh to join them, while still holding out hopes for French participation. The ERC has snubbed the RFU, and the remaining five nations are planning a competition that will have no credibility.
Results in recent weeks lend some credence to a conspiracy theory.
How does one explain the Connacht victory in Toulouse, closely followed by the French team's inability to deliver a bonus point against Zebre? The pool was easily the weakest in the competition Toulouse did not deliver against the two weakest teams in Europe.
Add to that, Castres in two matches against Leinster lost when it would have been easier to win. Their performance in the RDS was a disgrace, and smacked of contempt for the competition.
Unbelievably Perpignan threw away a game against Munster and failed at home to beat dreadful Gloucester.
The competition now is dependent on the commitment and enthusiasm of the Irish provinces.
Perhaps the French, who have had one volte face already, are planning another? Maybe they know the competition is dead and like the French infantry in 1918 have left the battle to the newcomers.
For whatever reason, the standard of the competition is below previous years. Leinster and Munster have never had to reach the heights to qualify. Leinster, with an ageing midfield and no Johnny Sexton, are pedestrian, and when O'Brien does not play, the paucity of their ball carrying is exposed.
Leinster have been required to do little other than defend and wait for their opponents to err. Even the Ospreys threw away whatever chance they had in the RDS by incurring a red card.
Munster had a near walkover against Edinburgh in Thomond yesterday, as the Scots coughed up tries by dreadful defending. They had nothing to offer and apart from an early flurry, the match moved towards its inevitable conclusion and a bonus-point victory. It is now impossible to grade the Irish provinces. Any rational study suggests they are neither playing well or have the capacity to raise their game.
Quite rightly, Leinster and Munster will say in their defence that they can only play against the opposition presented. The quarter-finals may answer that question.
Ulster, in contrast, have been magnificent. Their young guns in the backs have never lacked courage or initiative. Ruan Pienaar, apart from being the outstanding player in the competition, has taken the pressure off paddy Jackson, and the No 10 has looked a much better player.
The English cabal must wonder how their new competition can attract crowds and TV audiences if their two best teams scrape through as best losers. Ulster are to be lauded but Leicester were pedestrian, without a clever idea or move in their heads.
They are a testament to coach Richard Cockerill, who has all the failings of a former front-row with limited vision.
I am sure there were fans of another generation in the stand that yearned for the imagination of coach 'Chalky' White and the silky midfield skills of Paul Dodge and Clive Woodward. This team could not even cheat their way to victory, having thrown away a 10-point lead.
Ulster are drawn for a home semi-final, and could make it all the way. With Pienaar in imperious form they would not fear any opponent in the final. It has been too long since the famous victory over Colomiers in 1999. It would be the ultimate irony if their first Heineken Cup came with no English participation and their second when the same country made its departure.
Spare a thought for Connacht. The win in Toulouse is now consigned to the other one-off performances in the province's history.
With a debt of almost a million euro, an average coach and an even more average squad, the future is bleak. Economic reality may bite and as was always the sensible option, Ireland should have just three professional teams.
Roll on the Six Nations and a bit of honest endeavour.
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