Some harsh realities and some wishful thinking
Jim Glennon looks ahead and predicts a year of mixed fortunes for Irish rugby in 2012
There's no let-up then, is there? What was to have been a quiet holiday period of respite from the excitement of European competition turned out to be a fascinating couple of weeks, with events on and off the field dovetailing nicely to keep the game at the forefront of holiday conversation.
In keeping with the holiday theme, I now offer five predictions for Irish rugby in 2012 . . .
1 The IRFU's controversial proposals on non-Irish eligible players to be diluted, at the very least.
Well-intentioned and carefully constructed they may be, they are nonetheless fundamentally flawed mainly because of the apparently minimal levels of consultation with the key stakeholders, those charged with their implementation on a day-to-day basis, the management teams of the respective provinces.
The outspoken responses of the normally reticent Leinster duo of coach Joe Schmidt and manager Guy Easterby, and also Ulster coach Brian McLaughlin, indicates the strength of feeling within the provincial managements. From my perspective, it's hard to envisage a viable future for a system imposed without agreement, deemed unworkable by those charged with its implementation, and the legality of which is open to argument, at least.
That it might be seen as the thin edge of an IRFU wedge into the affairs of the provinces is a concern too, one which won't go unnoticed among the international coaching community as they pursue career opportunities in this part of the world, or among contract-seeking players of the same community who tend to have a distinct preference for contracts of the renewable type.
2 France to win the Six Nations. When the Six Nations follows a Lions tour or a World Cup, it tends to stretch the less well-resourced nations and so it's to be expected that Italy, Scotland, ourselves, and even Wales, notwithstanding their exceptional performance in New Zealand, will suffer.
England and France therefore stand to gain, and a combination of France's new management regime under Philippe Saint-Andre and England's internal tensions point to the French, with home games against Italy and Ireland on the opening two weekends to drive the advantage of their superior numbers home and so capitalise on the various difficulties of their rivals.
3 Leinster to regain the Celtic League. Sitting comfortably on top of the table at the turn of the year with 40 points from 11 games, six points clear of second-placed Ospreys and seven ahead of Munster with a game in hand, and with a squad whose depth of talent is the envy of all their competitors and of most in the Heineken Cup too, the reigning European champions are looking good for the crucial home semi-final.
Indicative of the depth of their squad is the manner in which they have coped with the long-term absence of Brian O'Driscoll and the ease with which Schmidt, ever since his arrival in the summer of 2010, has rotated his players to maximum effect not just with a view to garnering vital league points, but in doing so progressing the development of his cohort of talented youth into better players and essential cogs in his larger Leinster machine.
4 Leinster not to retain the Heineken Cup. There are several reasons why retaining their European crown may well prove beyond Leinster, notwithstanding all of the above, or indeed the manner in which they are progressing through their pool.
For starters, a measure of the achievement is that it has only been done once in the history of the competition -- by the all-conquering Leicester team of Neil Back, Martin Johnson, Austin Healey, Graham Rowntree, Martin Corry, and Geordan Murphy in 2001 and 2002.
Secondly, and for reasons outlined here recently, their principal threat, Toulouse, are showing signs of uncharacteristically early intent to defend their honour as Europe's best come season's end (regardless of their recent defeat by Harlequins, a result which may well be turned to their advantage).
Thirdly, the effects of the loss of O'Driscoll, Shane Horgan and Nathan Hines from last season's side shouldn't be underestimated; Hines in particular has left a vacuum yet to be filled and anxious eyes will be directed at Leo Cullen's second-row partner over the next couple of months.
Devin Toner's career is at the critical juncture where potential is irrelevant and capacity to perform at the highest-level essential; RaboDirect Pro12 league and Heineken pools are all well and good, but the cauldron of knock-out competition in Europe is where wages are earned and reputations made. Schmidt knows that there's no room for passengers on the trip to trophy retention.
5 Ireland to defeat the All Blacks for first time. Time was when the All Blacks pitched up here once every five years or so, perhaps played Munster and Ulster, Leinster if they were lucky, and then an international, probably untelevised and not sold-out either. Yes, believe it or not, that was the reality of rugby in Ireland in the 1960s and '70s. More recently too -- during my involvement with Leinster, as a player from 1975 to 1987 and selector/coach/manager from 1992 to 1998, we never managed to get a fixture with them.
Fast-forward to 2012, however, and Ireland will play the recently-crowned world champions three times in the space of a June fortnight. We've never beaten them in 24 encounters since 1905 and, more relevantly, in ten games since the turn of this century, but it's a run which must stop sometime and an early-season All Black combination could be caught on the hop by a full-strength Irish team set on proving to their new-found New Zealand support base that their World Cup performance against Australia is the real benchmark of their ability, rather than that against Wales.
Then again, the levels of hunger required for such an achievement may well have been already fully sated, with satisfied provincial team managements having negotiated an acceptable regime in relation to non-Irish eligible players and the retention of both Heineken and Pro12 titles. And Declan Kidney having achieved his second Grand Slam in three years.
Dream on -- and all the best for 2012.
Sunday Indo Sport