My 2014 wishlist to put game on the right footing
Saving Europe and job for Eddie O'Sullivan top bill
The plan was to launch straight into my wishlist for 2014 -- and I will come to that later -- but given what has transpired in the last few days relative to the Welsh Regions and their relationship with the Welsh Rugby Union, we are entering into the first few days of a new year with the northern hemisphere professional game in crisis.
Without wishing to sound too melodramatic, it is as close to meltdown as the much-changed game has been in the 18-odd years since it went professional.
The bottom line, following the meeting held in Cardiff on Tuesday, is that the four artificially created regions -- Cardiff (Blues), Llanelli (Scarlets), Neath/ Swansea (Ospreys) and Newport/Gwent (Dragons) -- will join with Premiership Rugby (England) and create an Anglo/Welsh League for a minimum of five years if agreement on the future of the Heineken Cup is not reached by the end of January.
Put simply, there could be no Heineken Cup next season after the unanimous decision by the regions was to breakaway or die a slow death -- as David Moffett, the man originally responsible for creating the regions, effectively put it.
Unlike here, where the professional game slotted seamlessly into the provincial model, it's been square pegs and round holes all the way for the Welsh.
They are faced with the problem of securing their financial future and therefore have little choice but to consider any alternative monetary offer on the table that improves their lot.
Thus, when they say: "We reaffirm our commitment to the Rugby Champions Cup (the original PRL/NLR model), under the auspices of Six Nations Rugby (as distinct from ERC), unless a solution is reached by January 31," they mean it and will have no choice but to pursue Anglo/Welsh League and Rugby Champions Cup aspirations in the race for bread-and-butter survival.
this would leave Ireland, Scotland and Italy up the creek without a paddle. And while the stand-off between the Regions and the WRU is almost certainly destined for court, the game here is in nowhere land.
Who could blame Jamie Heaslip, Seanie O'Brien, or any player, should they choose to jump ship. If the mess was bad towards the end of 2013, it wasn't even close to the morass it's in now.
So, to kick off my wishlist, the most obvious desire for 2014 comes first:
1. That someone will wave a magic wand and all interested parties will, somehow, come together and save the European game from self-destruction.
It is no longer just survival of the fittest, but, indeed, the very future of the professional game that is on the line.
2. Rhat the IRFU finds/creates a coaching role somewhere in the system for Eddie O'Sullivan. It beggars belief that the Cork-born, Galway-based hugely-respected coach, who delivered three triple crowns in four seasons, cannot find meaningful employment in his native land. What message does that send out to Irish-born coaches with similar aspirations?
3. That one simple extra is added to improve the scrum engagement. This involves the scrum-half feeding (upon the referee's call of 'set' and subsequent nod) and the hooker striking in tandem, thereby resurrecting a lost art.
4. That the iRFU, despite the wishes of provincial head coaches, abandon British and Irish Cup involvement and place greater emphasis on the best of emerging talent competing in the Ulster Bank All-Ireland League.
5. That touch judges begin to earn their crust again instead of the over-reliance on video playback. I'm all for anything that improves the flow and quality of the game, but the signs are that the TMO is taking over control from the onfield referee and that can't be right.
6. That the IRFU devise a series of 'Club final days' at the Aviva stadium so club players -- senior and junior -- get the once-in-a-lifetime chance to trod the hallowed turf of the Irish HQ and, more than anything, feel they belong.
7. In a similar vein, that the IRFU sanction an annual all-Ireland schools play-off between the four provincial senior cup winners during the easter holidays.
8. That the Aviva stadium authorities re-assess the current entrance/exit and footflow strategies for spectators before and after big games.
9. That the stadium gets an interior makeover to improve access to toilets, eliminate the dour sense of greyness and cold and generally improve the inhospitable inner feel and appearance.
10. More than anything that the same stadium bans the sale of food and beverages during games other than at half-time and eliminate constant disruption to spectators with people getting in and out of their seats.
11. That theIRFU bid to stage the 2023 World Cup exclusively on this island is taken to the next level.
12. That the governing body continues to help clubs through its generously funded 'your club -- your country' draw, which has the potential to yield at least a €1m without any cost to hard-pressed clubs.
13. That the increasing use of southern hemisphere terminology is removed from Irish players' vocabulary. One particularly high-profile Irish player was quoted recently as saying he just wanted to continue "playing footy"-- ouch! While working on the 'paddock' before going back to the 'shed' and there putting your 'hand up for a jumper' has sadly become common place in the Irish rugby lexicon.
14. That someone in Lansdowne Road discovers 'nasty' Sevens for men before it's too late.
15. That my old mate Pat Fitz manages to get his hands on one of the big three -- triple crown, championship or grand slam -- before his special year of presidency is out.
16. That the IRFU builds on its relationship with club and grassroots through nationwide visits from the Longford RFC representative and first junior club member to hold the highest office -- the self same Pat Ftzgerald.
17. That the once dreaded word 'amalgamation' is looked at in a much more positive and wide-reaching community sense, given that the trailblazing Blackrock RFC/Cuala GAA negotiations are already under way.
18. That Connacht receives all the financial and moral support it deserves to go from strength to strength and further foster the game in the west so that running out at the Sportsground wearing the green becomes every young boy's dream west of the Shannon.
19. That someone, somewhere decides it prudent to stop the clock when the collapsed scrum is being reset. It ain't rocket science.
20. That four of the most talented lads I have coached -- Ryan O'Loughlin and Stevie Toal-Lennon (St Mary's), as well as Stevie Crosbie and Jack Conan (Old Belvedere) make the breakthrough they deserve in 2014.
Finally, a happy and productive new year to one and all.