Is this the end of the golden age for Irish rugby?
The IRFU is facing into uncertain future on and off the pitch after an unprecedented period of success
Luke Fitzgerald, Rory Best and Mike McCarthy look dejected during the Six Nations, a tournament which could be the last for some players. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho
When the BBC closed out its final weekend of Six Nations highlights last Sunday it did so, fittingly, enough with Adele’s haunting theme song to Skyfall . Needless to say, when one of the slow-mos stayed on a mournful looking Brian O’Driscoll as the Irish players clapped their Italian counterparts from the field, cue “This Is the End”.
“Hold your breath and count to ten,” Adele adds in Skyfall as Bond plummets into the water. By rights of course, “This is the end” should have come with a question mark, and indeed, RTÉ might more legitimately have closed out its coverage of this year’s Six Nations with a montage of images to the backdrop of the Bond soundtrack.
For not only is there a question mark over O’Driscoll’s future. Save for diamonds maybe, nothing lasts forever, that’s why some eras are called golden, but with the golden generation coming to an end, it is entirely valid to ask of Ireland’s golden era: is this the end?
And it was golden, if more so for the provinces. From the January day in 2000 when Ulster won the European Cup, to the ensuing Six Nations which featured five new caps in a 44-22 win over Scotland and O’Driscoll’s hat-trick in Paris, Munster and Leinster won five Heineken Cups in a seven year period from 2006 to 2012, and Ireland finally augmented three Triple Crowns with the Grand Slam of 2009.
For sure, one Slam/championship from a golden era will forever be a source of regret, especially set alongside two World Cup quarter-final defeats either side of a group exit, and set against three Grand Slams and now another Six Nations title for the Welsh.
Wales also have a young international squad set to be the bulk suppliers for the forthcoming Lions tour and ought to be even better come the 2015 World Cup, with England also far more advanced in their World Cup cycle.
Of the 23 players used in Ireland’s Grand Slam campaign, only five featured in Rome last Saturday. Of the others, eight have since retired, six were injured and four were deemed surplus to requirements. Put another way, four years on, only five of those 23 players are still in their 20s.
Admittedly, you wonder how Wales’ latest golden era can be sustained given the penurious, under-performing state of their regions, but even the Irish provinces – especially Munster and Leinster – appear to be in transition, whatever about decline.
Retirement and injuries
Munster were first to be hit by a spate of retirements and injuries. Following on from the loss or retirements of Anthony Foley, Anthony Horgan, John Kelly, Trevor Halstead, Shaun Payne and Federico Pucciariello from the successful class of 2006, of the 22 players used in Munster’s 2008 Heineken Cup final win over Toulouse, Jerry Flannery, John Hayes, Alan Quinlan, David Wallace, Denis Leamy, Mick O’Driscoll, Ian Dowling and Frankie Sheahan have all retired, Rua Tipoki, Lifeimi Mafi, Tomás O’Leary, Paul Warwick and Tony Buckley have moved on, as to all intents and purposes has Peter Stringer, while contracts for Ronan O’Gara and Doug Howlett have still to be resolved for next season. Put another way, Keith Earls and Denis Hurley are the only current Munster players from that final squad still in their 20s.
Having failed to reach the knock-out stages of the Heineken Cup for the first time in 13 years two seasons ago, and also table-toppers and champions of the League in ’09 and ’11, Munster currently lie sixth and seven points off the play-offs in the Pro12.