Thursday 21 February 2019

There's more to rugby than Six Nations success

Paul O'Connell, Ireland, wins a lineout against Scotland
Paul O'Connell, Ireland, wins a lineout against Scotland

Jim Glennon

What an afternoon of rugby. A Six Nations tournament whose previous rounds had offered only the briefest glimpses of creativity and excitement suddenly exploded into a carnival of sport at its most spectacular.

What started in Rome with the Welsh delivering a seemingly insurmountable winning margin, only to be undermined by Leonardo Sarto's late try and Luciano Orquera's touchline conversion, continued on to Murrayfield with captain Paul O'Connell, characteristically uncompromising, setting out his stall with a try almost before the band had left the pitch.

Followed as it was by early signs of a hitherto unseen adventure from the Irish backs, typified by Robbie Henshaw and Luke Fitzgerald repeatedly probing the left side, the agenda was set for what turned out to be one of the great Irish performances.

The remarkable, almost Barbarian nature of the afternoon's third game at Twickenham, with the points racking up and the outcome in question until the final whistle almost defies description. Our hearts were in our mouths until French scrumhalf Rory Kockott finally brought the day's proceedings to a close.

Ireland's success means Joe Schmidt continued his remarkable record of winning a major international trophy in each of his five seasons so far in Irish rugby. But for much of the Championship some commentators bemoaned the quality of the overall product on offer, and in particular the style of game plan implemented by Schmidt's team. For some, it was a case of getting the win regardless of the means, even if it meant playing a simple, pragmatic game plan based on accurate kicking, strength in the air, and a strong defence.

For others, there was a nagging feeling that entertainment levels should have been higher and that more was expected of the game's annual European showpiece. Last week however, the accuracy and conviction with which the Irish squad and management team carried out their roles, particularly in attack, was a vindication for those who had pointed to the need for an expanded repertoire, yearning to see more from the squad.

As I've mentioned, Henshaw and Fitzgerald were stand-out performers, particularly in the first half, and the sight of the latter carrying from the Irish 22 at the first opportunity was a sight for the sorest of eyes. While Seán O'Brien received the official man of the match award, the displays of O'Connell and Peter O'Mahony were simply outstanding too.

It has been consistently argued that for Ireland to compete with, and beat, the world's top teams, namely New Zealand and South Africa, we must show greater initiative and play a more expansive game. While Scotland are nowhere near that quality, it was nonetheless heartening that such a display exists in our armoury, an offensive offering unseen since the loss to New Zealand in November 2013.

As the tournament's final weekend continues, understandably, to be viewed through a green-tinted prism of positivity, it would be wrong to ignore the issues that arose during its earlier rounds. The three major topics of discussion, without any doubt, were concussion, kicking, and defence.

The attritional nature of some games made for difficult viewing, with the levels of physicality on show occasionally bordering on violence, and, while public awareness of the risks of concussion has improved massively in recent years, regrettably the reaction of the game's authorities in their struggle to achieve a universal response has fallen dangerously short of requirements.

We've grown accustomed in recent seasons to midweek injury updates from management, a regular, almost permanent feature of which is the phrase "observing the return to play protocols following concussion". I have in the past expressed my concerns at the potential negative impact of the concussion issue on the numbers of mini and youth players in clubs around the country, and on the adult amateur game too, and will continue to do so for as long as the authorities continue to fall short in their reaction.

It shouldn't be forgotten, regardless of how well our professionals perform at provincial and international level, that only a tiny minority of those playing the game do so professionally. Recreational rugby, as played in clubs and schools is, and always will be, the essence of the game on this island; while the success achieved, by men and women alike, should provide a boost in playing numbers - with the growth of girls rugby in particular likely to be impacted positively - trends in the professional game remain a source of concern, with rapidly declining participation rates in the amateur game, particularly at the more social level.

Our success at international level has given everyone involved in Irish rugby a major boost, but as the Ulster Bank League returns this weekend for its seasonal run-in, it's back to the grind for the clubs.

While those involved at the IRFU's top level justifiably bask in the reflected glories of all that's good in our game as played at the highest level, their appreciation of and material support for clubs remains the subject of animated debate.

All involved in Irish rugby are entitled to celebrate having closed the gap with those at the apex of the world game, but a responsibility exists also to not lose contact with the countless enthusiasts involved at the game's foundation levels. There is a duty to safeguard the welfare of everybody, regardless of their place in the pyramid.

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