Friday 20 September 2019

Tony Ward: Separate silverware would help to prevent inter-pros losing their lustre

Full-blooded battles are a thing of the past but Ireland's proud derby tradition is something we should try to preserve

Connacht head coach Kieran Keane. Photo: Sam Barnes/Sportsfile
Connacht head coach Kieran Keane. Photo: Sam Barnes/Sportsfile
Tony Ward

Tony Ward

They all want to play in them and I'm as excited as much by the occasion as the players are. I think it is a great thing, because anyone who is hoping to get a green shirt , this is the forum to shine in.'

The words of recently-arrived Connacht head coach Kieran Keane. Not for a minute do I doubt his sincerity and of course he speaks for his team and attitude in the west to the inter-provincial segment of the Guinness Pro14 season. But is it an attitude still shared by all?

As one brought up on a system whereby the three inter-pros (there were no home and away fixtures prior to the game going open) represented the main bridge to international selection, the importance needed little elaboration and contrary to much exaggerated lore (not least the Dooradoyle 'two men and a shaggy dog' story) these games did matter.

Yes, there was the dreaded Final Trial to follow but that was when conservatism ruled and the Whites or Probables, selected on the back of the inter-provincial series, generally took their place en bloc for the opening international of the season.

So, while I take the new Connacht mentor's point about the trip to Belfast and last night's clash with Munster being games all his players want to play in, particularly given the absence of Champions Cup rugby in the Sportsground this time around (credit Rassie Erasmus too for the strength of the Munster selection in Galway last night), I can't see how the so-called derby games matter in terms of Test selection any more.

I would love to be proved way off in that assessment but the reality based on all recent evidence is very different - think Leinster travelling to Limerick last Christmas understrength but by design (IRFU and Leinster Rugby) rather than injury.

Or, indeed, just look at the most recent clash between the teams at the Aviva - a game short on intensity at least in the full-blooded sense we have taken for granted in recent years.

My own first game at inter-provincial level was as a late replacement for Barry McGann against the Wallabies in Cork in January 1976.

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Needless to say, the sacred status of Munster playing a touring side wasn't lost in that momentous leap in my then-fledgling career.

However, it would be the following season at the same crowded Musgrave, now Irish Independent, Park that the true meaning of the inter-provincial and its importance to the three-tier structure came home. It was the bridge, the only bridge, between club and country.

The Final Trial was relevant but only as a necessary evil to players and selectors alike.

The build-up to that Leinster game has stayed with me to this day. Leinster were the Galacticos of the time coming to put manners on the whipper snappers from down south.

Just the previous week in a friendly at Stradey Park they had thumped the then mighty Llanelli by over 30 points.

It was a Leinster team riddled with internationals including Johnny Cantrell, Fergus Slattery, John Moloney, Mick Quinn, Tom Grace to name but some.

If memory serves me right, former Ireland centre Kevin Flynn was coach and in the build-up to that game he was quoted in the Cork and Limerick papers as saying that a repeat performance to that in West Wales the previous Saturday and Munster would come a distant second or words to that effect.

Pat Whelan was captain and one of five internationals along with Larry Moloney, Shay Dennison, Mick Sherry and Brendan Foley in our side.

Moss Keane was unavailable through injury and he was to us what leaders Mick Galwey, Donal Lenihan and Paul O'Connell were to become later on.

Pat is now a diplomat on the World Rugby stage, being chairman of the Six Nations Council amongst his many briefs, but back then he was a warrior, the original of the species.

As a motivator in a hotel or in a dressing room, he was second to none and I include Ciarán Fitzgerald, the best captain I ever played under, in that assessment.

We were staying in the Metropole Hotel in downtown Cork but before we left on the short trek to Musgrave, the Met was rocking.

Every quote from Flynner was pinned to the team room wall as Whelan went to town in his inimitable blood-and-guts way. We left as men possessed and on the day came out on top.

It was the forerunner to almost every game I played for Munster bar one and that was against Romania, a then powerful force we completely underestimated as a touring entity.

The point being that there is history and tradition going way back long before our time and the pro game now to an inter-provincial series that must of necessity continue to be at the heart of Irish rugby.

The club game is still being beaten to a pulp by the IRFU - Terenure top of Division 1A of the Ulster Bank All-Ireland League being scheduled to play third-placed Garryowen in Lakelands at the exact same time as Leinster and Munster were doing their thing down the road in the Aviva says it all about priorities in Lansdowne Road.

The game is more popular now than ever and the crowds attending the inter-provincial matches substantial but let the demise of the Railway Cup in GAA be a warning.

If the inter-pros or 'derbies' lose their edge, and there is a growing perception of them becoming a dress rehearsal to the Champions Cup, then the game at every level will be the loser. Watch for January 7 and let's see what happens then.

To be fair to Joe Schmidt, who announced his squad for the Guinness series on Thursday (a strange selection I might add, but we will deal with that anon), he doesn't need for derby information anywhere near as much as previous coaches/selection committees did.

I wish that were not the case but when the national elite can play Pro14 almost any Saturday or, more accurately, when he and David Nucifora so demand, the information banks are at overload.

Maybe this train has already left the station but I would love to see an even greater emphasis on the humble inter-pro. The four teams could play for a new trophy after Pro14 and Champions (or Challenge Cup) but one with the appropriate prestige and financial clout, courtesy of a new sponsorship.

Such a move would help to keep the inter-pros in their rightful place at the top of the Irish rugby agenda.

Irish Independent

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