Our Heineken Cup odyssey is over. A tough, unforgiving road lies ahead.
Experienced overseas players will be crucial if Irish provinces are to stay competitive
Mourad Boudjellal, the owner of Toulon: players like Jonny Wilkinson, Juan Smith and Carl Hayman have been key to their success. Photograph: David Rogers/Getty Images)
So, the Heineken Cup odyssey that Irish provinces began way back in 1995 ended Sunday in Marseille. Munster were the last men standing but that’s as much down to an unfortunate refereeing decision in Ravenhill as anything else.
Good fortune, I fear, will become a crucial element to ensure progress in next season’s new 20-team tournament.
Luck begins at home. Leinster followed up their dismantling of Northampton at Franklin’s Gardens by losing to the same opponents at the Aviva Stadium a week later. Earlier that December day, Munster produced a remarkable revival against Perpignan when JJ Hanrahan’s late try earned a hugely valuable away victory.
The knock-on effect saw Munster in Limerick for a quarter-final against Toulouse while Leinster were forced to travel into Toulon’s bear-pit, the Stade Félix Mayol.
When this season is reviewed it will show 14-man Ulster’s excellence in losing by just two points to Saracens and how neither Leinster nor Munster could stay within a score of Toulon in the south of France.
Munster could also have done with some good fortune in the knockout stages having got four away semi-finals since 2008. That really does matter.
I think Leinster and Munsterwould have beaten Toulon in Dublin. Just see what happened when Toulouse visited Thomond Park. They looked disinterested long before the end of the 47-23 pasting. But the crowd played their part, the aura of the place too. It always lifts the players to new heights.
Toulouse and Toulon are not dissimilar in stature as clubs or on-field physical presence. But home advantage remains so vital in Europe.
It’s only going to get tougher to earn a home quarter-final.
The fact of the matter is a dispute over money – and who deserves what portion of television revenue - brought the curtain down on the Heineken Cup. The French and English won the power struggle. They got more money to divvy up among themselves and more teams in the elite draw than the rest of us.
I wonder when the tournament officially dies on May 24th will the romanticism of it all go to the grave as well. When I started playing in Europe for Munster you could feel it capturing the imagination of the Irish public. Ulster went and won it in 1999 but it was what happened all across Munster up to the 2000 final through to 2008 that changed the Irish sporting landscape forever.
Then Leinster, to their enormous credit, took up that mantle capturing the trophy three times in four seasons.
From what I witnessed from the Sky Sports gantry overlooking the pitch at the Stade Vélodrome on Sunday those great days will be less frequent.
Not that I think they will fade entirely to memory. The European legacies built up across all four provinces will carry on.
Sure, down in Munster, the man who lifted the trophy in 2006 becomes head coach this summer. Anthony Foley does, however, have an enormous task to keep Munster at the standard Rob Penney brought them back up to.
There is no shame in two semi-final defeats in succession away to cash rich French clubs. Penney must be commended for the job he has done these past two seasons. He is a passionate man, very likeable and respected by the players. He’ll be missed.
The first appointment Munster and Foley must make is a skills/attack coach. You can see the value of getting the right men into your backroom team from the previous two Irish coaching tickets.
Declan Kidney knew the value of bringing Gert Smal from South Africa and Joe Schmidt took a similar route by recruiting John Plumtree (both of them snapped up Les Kiss).
The immediate result? Some excellent forward play delivered Ireland’s only Six Nations titles since the 1980s.
The Munster squad also needs an influx of quality. The centre combination of Casey Laulala – off to join Johnny Sexton, the most costly player to ever leave these shores, at Racing Metro – and James Downey are leaving so a 13 and someone who can play 12 but also cover the two outhalves is needed. Robin Copeland coming from Cardiff is encouraging and will add vital depth to the backrow.
This brings us back to the financial disadvantages. Recent moves to sell the Thomond Park naming rights merely reinforce that plight.
The success of Munster, then Leinster, was built around some of the best home-grown players we have ever seen, and the IRFU’s ability to keep them here until Sexton’s migration, but the European titles of 2006, 2008, 2009, 2011 and 2012 wouldn’t have happened without stellar foreign contributors.
I’m talking about towering figures like Trevor Halstead, Shaun Payne, Rua Tipoki, Rocky Elsom, Isa Nacewa, Nathan Hines and Brad Thorn.
The challenge now for Axel, Matt O’Connor and David Humphreys is to entice a similar standard of player.
Humphreys is seeking to fill the void of John Afoa and Johann Muller’s retirement.
The younger players in Munster and Leinster are at a stage now where they need to be brought through but each province equally needs to recruit one or two foreigners.
These must be powerful, experienced southern hemisphere men who would welcome the onslaught we witnessed from Toulon’s mercenaries. From my perch on Sunday I had an up-close and personal view of the Toulon players as they arrived onto the field. They are a ferocious pack of forwards. You can’t but commit numbers to every ruck against them. That’s how they bleed you.
Wilkinson, Juan Fernandez Lobbe, Bryan Habana, Juan Smith and Carl Hayman make team-mates better just by being around them. Like Hines and Thorn did in Leinster or John Langford and Jim Williams did for Munster.
I’m not sure Toulon owner Mourad Boudjellal thinks like that but in order to survive at the elite end of the European game that must remain the Irish template.
Leinster’s starting XV against Ulster in the 2012 final included Thorn, Nacewa and the soon to be naturalised Richardt Strauss. Ulster started Stefan Terblanche, Ruan Pienaar, Johann Muller and Pedrie Wannenburg that day but have since brought through some outstanding young players like Iain Henderson. The Strauss route of qualifying quality players via residency is being actively followed by all the provinces now. See CJ Stander, Rodney Ah You and Jared Payne.
But that isn’t enough. Munster, probably due to the salary constraints, didn’t even take up their full complement of foreign options this season. That mattered in the end, I feel.
The atmosphere all over Marseille and at the Vélodrome was unforgettable but I thought the behaviour of Toulon supporters during the match was disgraceful. For every Ian Keatley kick they unmercilessly booed. That’s not the rugby way. Guess that’s long been the French way though.
We may get used to it. The Heineken Cup is gone. A tough, unforgiving road lies ahead.