Ruaidhri O'Connor: These are challenging times but Irish rugby can still hold its own
Three months have passed since Ireland's World Cup campaign came to a shuddering halt against Argentina and during that time a combination of provincial results and player exits have fuelled the sense that rugby in this country has entered into a turbulent period of uncertainty. Ruaidhri O'Connor examines the state of the union.
Picture the scene. The match is long over, but the fans who have lingered around the Aviva Stadium are invited back in.
France have just shocked England, meaning Ireland's win over Scotland has been enough to give Joe Schmidt's side a surprise third Six Nations in a row. Rory Best holds the trophy aloft and a nation rejoices. Once again, everything is rosy in the Irish rugby garden.
Or is it? Would another Championship be enough to dispel the disquiet that has followed the all-too-familiar World Cup quarter-final exit and the retirement of Paul O'Connell, the last of the so-called golden generation.
Munster and Leinster are out of Europe earlier than ever before, while Ulster hope to squeeze into the last eight. Connacht are a beacon in the west, but even their rise may not be enough to keep their marquee player on board. Meanwhile, Ireland internationals in their early and mid-20s are being lured to England and France.
The club game remains in an interminable flux. Fresh changes to a mangled All-Ireland League structure are on the way, but what should be the life-blood of the sport continues to be a problem child. These are legitimate concerns and the challenges are real.
The chief driver of everything in Irish rugby is the national team. International matches at the Aviva Stadium fund the game in Ireland, meaning power resides on Lansdowne Road where David Nucifora, the IRFU's performance director, and Schmidt call the shots.
The appointment of Nucifora came with 'Plan Ireland', launched in 2014 as part of the IRFU's strategic plan from 2013-2017, a document that lays out the union's objectives.
While the national team have surpassed their target of "winning a Six Nations Championship and achieving runner-up over a four-year period on at least two occasions", they can also argue that they gave themselves a "credible chance of achieving a top four position in the 2015 World Cup" given the catastrophic combination of injury and suspension in the week before the defeat to Argentina.
Yet, when you delve down to the provinces it is clear, despite Nucifora's claims last month that they are not under-performing, that the standard expected of "an Irish province to win the Heineken Cup in the next four years, with two Irish provinces qualifying for the knockout stages annually" is not being met.
Having been in the job for a year and a half, Nucifora is currently working on a new strategic plan for Irish rugby that will allow him put his own stamp on the goals for the various stakeholders invested in the game here, while also taking into account the changed landscape of the game in Europe. Since his arrival, the Australian has focused his efforts on improving the "development pathway" for young players, while retaining front-line internationals has also been high on his list of his priorities.
His efforts to encourage players to move between provinces in order to improve their game-time and enhance the options on offer to Schmidt have thus far proven unsuccessful, while the provinces' efforts to bring in overseas talent have often run aground in his office. The former hooker's remit is wide and his performance cannot be judged this early in his tenure, but there are many within the game who grumble at his influence.
Not all of the issues can be laid at his door, yet it must be stated that those who claim that Ireland is nearing the end of a decade-and-a-half-long love affair with rugby, that the wheels falling off the bandwagon, are wide of the mark. The incredible World Cup viewing figures cannot be easily dismissed, while gates are down across Europe after an expensive World Cup. Sure, the support base are relatively recent converts, but assertions that rugby's popularity is based on sand are simply wrong.
That doesn't mean those running the sport can be complacent. It will be interesting to see just how many people brave the cold to support Leinster and Munster this weekend, yet their season-ticket figures remain strong and there are people willing to invest time, money and energy into supporting their team.
Still, their support should not be taken for granted. While a decade ago there were concerns about the provinces' success damaging the national team, now there is a worry that the balance has gone too far the other way.
The IRFU will point to the fact that the majority of the €72.4m they generated in income came from match-day revenue, with the entire professional game costing €38.4m; €28.4m of which goes into the senior men's teams.
So, it is up to the provinces to boost their own revenue. Munster and Ulster can both use their stadiums to help the balance sheet, while Leinster have the option of using the Aviva Stadium for their bigger games.
However, television revenue is the key driver of funding professional sport these days and the Guinness Pro12 is way behind its rivals in this regard. The countries that participate all offer small audiences so, despite league chief executive John Feehan's assertion that more people in Britain and Ireland watched the Pro12 final last year than the Premiership equivalent, Sky Sports paid far less than BT Sports did for the rights. "It's a completely new television-funded market, now at nearly €75m in France," Munster chief executive Garrett Fitzgerald said this week. "I think it's up to £40m (€52m) in the Aviva Premiership. We're at about €12m for the Pro12.
"It's a market that's ever changing and you throw in private investment with that. No matter how much you plan, it's such a changeable feast it's very hard to keep with it. The difference in funding is television and private investment. There are plenty of players in Ireland on competitive international market rates that are happy to stay, but it's competitive and we've done well."
The idea of a British and Irish League would open the Celtic nations up to a piece of the pie and also benefit gates. Leinster's Mick Dawson has spoken favourably about the idea in the past and Fitzgerald this week described it as "the ultimate goal".
"The Aviva Premiership clubs have a very good deal on what they have and it would take a little bit to tempt them into that," he said.
"Given the Irish population that live in England, it's certainly attractive having Irish teams going in. If you want to compete long term in what's going on in France TV-wise that's probably the ultimate goal even if it's over two divisions."
The current agreement between the Pro12 unions runs until 2018, while BT's deal to broadcast the Premiership runs until 2021, meaning that is more of a long-term fix. The net result of the current disparity between resources is the increasingly tempting offers for Irish players to go overseas. While talk of an exodus is way overstating the issue, the sight of two Irish out-halves and a tighthead prop leaving these shores is concerning.
JJ Hanrahan, Ian Madigan and Marty Moore all had their own reasons for leaving. There is a premium on their positions, meaning all three were able to command good deals. The IRFU used a performance analyst to value all of the players who were out of contract, but one wonders whether their valuations are realistic on the current transfer market. Still, so far they have managed to keep their front-line internationals on board.
With individual backers also strengthening French and English clubs' hands, private investment has also been floated as a potential way of improving the provinces' lot. Already, a number of players' salaries are being subsidised by benefactors.
Nucifora is cautious about the idea of private investment, but he said the idea of benefactors to fund marquee overseas signings is worth exploring as long as those signings fill a need.
"It might be that it's a case of the high-profile foreign players might be the ones that are funded by that private money and the rest of the money is spent on keeping Irish players in the country," he said.
"It's obvious that there is more money outside of Irish rugby than we have got. One of the mitigations we have got to go against that risk is to be able to invest in talent development. That is one way of fighting the excess financial prowess."
Which brings us to the development pathway. The union increased spending on identifying and developing talent in the men's and women's games by almost €1m last year and, in the wake of the World Cup exit, Nucifora was keen to hammer home the point that a lack of depth in certain positions remains the Ireland national team's main problem. He cited Madigan as a prime example of a player whose opportunity was limited by provincial selection meaning, when Johnny Sexton was unavailable for Argentina, his back-up out-half had been second-choice No 10 at his province for the previous two seasons.
Ireland's player pathway is three-track. The schools remains the most fruitful proving ground for young players, while the clubs are also chipping in to a lesser degree. If the union identify an area of weakness in the production line, they will try and find an Irish-qualified player living abroad or bring in an uncapped player who will qualify for Ireland after three years living here.
While the schools are producing, the clubs remain a relatively untapped route into the wider population. Identifying and developing talent from non-traditional areas should be a priority.
Giving those players who do come through opportunities remains a key challenge. The advent of Sevens has added to scope to impress and develop, but with just 92 squad places on offer each week in the provinces, there is frustration among young players who play pinball between their clubs and the 'A' sides.
Given Ulster Bank contribute sponsorship income for the league and the IRFU spend almost €9m per annum on the club game, they should find a way of fitting the AIL into the pathway, but it remains an afterthought.
Nucifora is keen to move players between the provinces to ensure as many players are playing as possible, but he has experienced resistance, with Madigan the highest profile player to say no to a switch, choosing instead to move to Bordeaux.
One option available is to fix the broken link between the union and London Irish to allow players who'd prefer to move abroad to stay linked to the system, but as it stands the lure of moving away remains strong.
All of this means that fans may have to accept that the glory years for the provinces between 2006 and 2012, in which Munster and Leinster won five out of a possible seven European titles, are long gone. They will wonder whether a home-grown squad can ever compete with French clubs laden with the world's best players and look enviously as the English sides play catch-up with their cheque-books.
Still, this post-World Cup period was always going to be tough and there are signs of a new generation of talented players emerging from academy that offers some hope.
Certainly, another Championship would help lift the gloom even if it wouldn't eradicate all the issues. Nucifora has outlined retaining the Six Nations title as a primary goal for Schmidt, but most would settle for a strong performance and the unearthing of some new faces.
2016 is going to be a difficult year for the New Zealander. Traditionally, Ireland don't do well in years that follow World Cups and the schedule is laced with danger for Schmidt's side with Wales at home, followed by France and England away. He must replace Paul O'Connell the captain and the player, while his side take on a three-Test tour of South Africa and face New Zealand twice in November.
That tough schedule is all designed to improve Ireland's chances of smashing the quarter-final glass ceiling at the next World Cup. The same goes for the restrictions on imports and the emphasis on bringing through Irish talent.
So, there may well be plenty of pain to come before things improve. A bad Six Nations or a tough season for the provinces can be explained away on their own, but the two together on the back of such a disappointing World Cup will be seen as some as an end-of-days scenario. The head coach remains a prized asset, while his support staff is strong and the national team remain in a good place.
The provinces are facing further challenges, but the structures in place are, for the most part, stronger than they've ever been off the pitch from an infrastructural perspective.
Keeping up with the big-money clubs from abroad won't be easy and requires innovation and creativity. The provinces must be challenged to improve, while the union must also support their endeavours.
They are operating in difficult conditions and their ability to respond to those and lead the way in the years to come will dictate the success or otherwise of Irish rugby beyond 2016.