Sunday 21 July 2019

Brendan Fanning: Irish camper van eclipsing an English juggernaut

Simon Zebo and Johnny Sexton embrace after Ireland beat England in the Six Nations at the Aviva Stadium in March. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Simon Zebo and Johnny Sexton embrace after Ireland beat England in the Six Nations at the Aviva Stadium in March. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

The day after St Patrick's Day this year Ireland beat England in a slog of a game at the Aviva Stadium. It didn't secure a Six Nations Championship, but in the circumstances not too many were giving out. Beating England is enough for lots of Irish fans, regardless of the code, and in that achievement they forget that it is just that: an achievement. To follow it up nine months later with a wipeout of English clubs in the back-to-back rounds of the Champions Cup lifts it onto a higher plane.

Consider the flip side. Had Dylan Hartley walked out of Lansdowne Road that evening with the Grand Slam as well as the Six Nations title, it would have completed a remarkable turnaround for England: from the ashes of their 2015 World Cup they would have put together a 19-game winning streak to take them one past New Zealand.

And that would have been apposite: the world's biggest, and richly resourced, rugby nation and the world's best, going toe to toe for world records. So if Ireland had got the silver medal on that March day the reaction would have been balanced enough.

There would likely have been a whinge about the style of the Irish game under Joe Schmidt but equally there would have been an acknowledgement of what we're dealing with when it comes to England: a juggernaut compared to our camper van.

Chances are that had that come to pass then here in the fourth estate we would have gone off the deep end predicting, for the second time in three years, the end of the world as we know it.

When in 2014 ERC was gazumped by EPCR we felt like all those show-band managers around 1970s Ireland when disco arrived with its glittering balls, and stole the show.

The English and French clubs, awash with cash and newly attained power, got what they wanted with a revised tournament. Meritocracy was the buzz-word. The Celts would have to take their place in the queue and come in through the front door like everyone else.

The effect appeared almost immediate, with only England and France providing teams to the last eight in 2015/16, split five and three. You didn't need to be Nostradamus, however, to predict that a competition without competitive Irish teams would affect the bottom line as well as the brand itself.

And if we felt bad over here then soon enough over there they realised it didn't feel so good either. By 2016/17 Leinster and Munster were back in the quarter-finals. The attendances over the seven games of the knockout phase increased by a staggering 55 per cent on the Irish-less event the previous season. It was chalk and cheese.

The restoration wasn't on the back of a shift in the rules or regulations, or in a different divvy-up of the cash. Rather through a combination of good coaching and a good supply line of local talent, and a bit of luck, our leading provinces were back in business.

There is no guarantee this will continue. Ulster's stuttering production line should be a cause of huge concern across the country, for it is in everybody's interests that each corner of the domestic model is as good as it can be. This is a hard sell to provincial coaches when David Nucifora rings up and suggests they wave goodbye to player X because he will get more game time in province Y. But if you want to be the best then it means more to be better than competitive opponents instead of pushovers.

That's why shifting players around the system makes sense. What makes even more sense is if each provincial set-up is largely resourced from within. Getting that balance right is Ireland's best chance of staying competitive against the telephone number salaries being offered in France.

Our performances at national and provincial level against England suggest we are competing very effectively despite the disparity in resources. Interestingly the latest from across the water is that they are coming across all French with their love of the domestic over the cross-border. It's a wonder that Europe has provided so much quality for so many over the years given France's capricious approach to preparing for it. And now England's clubs are considering the Champions Cup to be a speed bump on the road to the Premiership?

Having moulded the new Europe to suit their own ends this would be the equivalent of doing a runner at half-time because the game wasn't going your way. This is not something Ireland can control, but the events of 2017 illustrate that the bits we can influence are being well looked after.

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