Friday 23 March 2018

Jim Glennon: Pressing concerns not confined to national side

Jim Glennon

The immediate aftermath of the Six Nations usually presents something of a vacuum for rugby fans waiting for the business end of the Heineken Cup to kick in.

This season, to a greater extent than any other since the breakthrough of our provinces, we find ourselves in a period of deep, almost Cistercian contemplation not only around where this Ireland team is going and who'll be charged with guiding them, but also around the state of the game on the island.

Since January 2012 our international team has played 15 games, winning four and losing nine, with two drawn. Just one of the wins was away from home, and two of the losses were hammerings. We've slipped to ninth in the world rankings, having been overtaken by Samoa and Argentina.

Sadly, the overriding impression has been of a team in decline, haemorrhaging confidence and ultimately shorn of its dignity in Rome last week. Only one of those four wins could be classed as comprehensive, none of the losses could be put down to ill-fortune and the scorelines of both hammerings were reasonable reflections of our inferiority.

The unprecedented casualty-list may be a contributory factor but it is not an excuse. Injuries are as much a part of the game as scoring tries and making tackles – they provide another facet of the game to be managed, and a facet in which our performance fell short of the standard required.

Much of the pressure on the coaching team emanates from poor decisions. Better decisions in relation to the captaincy and the replacement of injured players could have been taken and would probably have resulted in better outcomes. The coaching team has a poor record in this area, from its failure to pro-actively manage the bench to the remarkable call to arms issued to Paddy Wallace as he holidayed with his family in Portugal, despite the presence with the squad in New Zealand of at least one able alternative. Indeed that particular decision is now seen by many close to the squad as something of a watershed in the decline.

For years the Irish model of player management and strength and conditioning was cited as the template for others to follow. The clean bills of health of the Grand Slam campaign of 2009 and of Leinster's more recent Heineken Cup victories are now a distant memory however and a striking feature of recent performances has been our failure to assert any kind of sustained physical superiority over the full 80 minutes similar to the physical maulings we received, for example, from the English both this year and last.

Nor are our difficulties confined to the national team. While Ulster were sometimes impressive in their pool, Leinster were outmuscled twice by Clermont, and Munster only managed to stumble through on the final day. I won't be backing any Irish province to win either of the two European competitions. The sheer power of the major contenders, and particularly the French with their seemingly unlimited resources, appears to be too much for our teams to match right now.

There are a number of other areas of concern too. Non-availability of senior players, through retirement or injury, is an issue at both provincial and national levels, while the not unrelated issue of funding deficiencies looms ever larger; this is, after all, commerce, an environment in which the bigger tend to grow as the smaller struggle to retain their identity. New coaching teams don't come cheap, and the French have raised the ante for the top tier of players to levels at which we're simply unable to compete.

The real depth of our playing resources is another issue – we must not delude ourselves that we should sleep easily just because we've blooded a host of new players. To confuse quantity with quality would be a dangerous mistake.

There are too many positions, and not just in the front-row, where there's a dearth of quality back-up.

All of this comes at a time when the club game in Ireland is enduring more than its share of difficulties. While rugby has expanded well beyond its traditional heartlands, the numbers playing are thinly spread and fielding a second adult team is a weekly challenge for many clubs, some of the oldest in the country among them. There's a growing feeling within clubs that something has to happen. Sadly, there is little faith in the IRFU to make it happen. Indeed, the IRFU is seen to be preoccupied with the problems of the professional game as they 'march to the beat of the broadcasters', as former All Black Chris Laidlaw put it in his book Somebody Stole my Game.

But what, I wonder, if it transpired that something has already happened, and if the women's Grand Slam-winning team were to provide a lifeline for clubs up and down the country?

Their achievement this season, coupled with their dedication over several years, demonstrated all the qualities of elite amateur sport at its best. It also provides a real opportunity for innovative clubs to bring rugby's wonderful qualities and traditions to an entirely new audience. How ironic would that be?

Irish Independent

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