Now for a right go at those pesky All Blacks
ON RUGBY:All credit to the IRFU, the Irish players are still in fine fettle after such a long season, writes GERRY THORNLEY
IF EVER you wanted an example of what a treadmill rugby has become then you only had to look to the Aviva Stadium by mid-day yesterday. The celebrations had barely ceased after Leinster’s triumph over Ulster and already, online, tickets were being purchased for next season’s Heineken Cup final at the Dublin venue, while inside the deserted stadium Declan Kidney was unveiling the squad for a three-Test tour of New Zealand.
A season that began with a World Cup warm-up match against Scotland at Murrayfield on the first weekend in August will end almost 11 months later on the last weekend in June when Ireland will play their third Test (and 17th of the season) against New Zealand in Hamilton.
You almost felt a little sorry for Kidney and, on either side of him, Gert Smal and Les Kiss. The focus now switches on to them and perhaps all the more harshly in light of an anti-climactic finale to the Six Nations in the same Twickenham arena where Leinster re-affirmed Ireland’s dominance of provincial/club European rugby. How to follow that?
Everything is black and white these days. There are no grey areas. Therefore, it stands to reason Irish provincial successes should be swiftly transferred to Six Nations glory and even an historic first win against the almighty All Blacks.
The debate as to why this hasn’t been done since the Grand Slam success will rage all the harder now, but remarkable coach though Joe Schmidt is (as well as disproving the theory that nice guys don’t win), it’s decidedly unfair to level the supposed “failure” on Kidney and co.
There is even a notion that Schmidt should be co-opted on to the Irish ticket forthwith. One would venture a phone call from Warren Gatland to his compatriot regarding next year’s Lions tour has more validity. To co-opt Schmidt on to the Irish management at such short notice would be an unreasonable ask of him and, especially, Kiss.
The Australian has been a superb addition to the Ireland coaching ticket and shown himself to be a cutting edge defensive coach, with his employment of the choke tackle and a defence which varies between drifting and pressing, as well as encompassing shooters.
After the World Cup, Kiss expanded his portfolio to take in Ireland’s attacking game, and after a hesitant start against Wales – when the loss of Brian O’Driscoll was compounded by injuries to Keith Earls and Darren Cave and led to some unfamiliar blips in the defence – there was real signs of the Irish attacking game taking in more shape, with pods of three on the gain line and behind. In a tournament where even Wales struggled to break down defences, Ireland scored nine tries in their next three games before the wheels came off the Irish scrum in Twickenham.
As Richardt Strauss noted in the aftermath of Saturday’s win, Ireland hadn’t looked a bad side in the World Cup. It was striking to note how Leinster players spoke of winning the Heineken Cup with their mates, alongside neighbours in many cases, with whom they share “the day job”.
Munster utilised a similar bond and recently in these pages, one of their key men in those halcyon days, Alan Quinlan, wrote about how much easier it is to generate real bonds, and feel confidence in your own skin, in the provincial environment of “the day job”.
Munster’s thrashing away to the Ospreys was at least a reality check, and a realisation of the scale of the task facing Rob Penney, while adding to the feeling that Anthony Foley may have dodged a bullet.
It should also serve to remind us of what an improbable achievement it was for Munster to win six from six in the pool stages of the Heineken Cup. That said, without Paul O’Connell and with Ronan O’Gara not starting against the Ospreys, they were always liable to struggle, and find that Pro 12 semi-final a bridge too far emotionally after such a demanding season.
The warmth for Brian McLaughlin amongst the Ulster players, their achievements under him in the last two seasons, along with the departure of Pedrie Wannenburg, Ian Humphreys and Stefan Terblanche, also adds to the pressure on Mark Anscombe; albeit in a different way. In any event, Leinster are in pole position to maximise the inherent advantages of “the day job” for years to come.
With a lengthier build-up to the World Cup and the tournament itself, Kidney and co were able to generate a similarly familial feel to the Ireland squad and, along with good coaching, this showed in their performances.
Lest we forget, Ireland had their best World Cup ever (admittedly these things are relative) in winning all four pool matches for the first time, including a first win in the Southern Hemisphere over one of the Tri Nations teams since 1979 before losing to Wales in the quarter-finals.
Here, unfortunately for Kidney and Irish rugby, lies another conundrum; namely how Welsh rugby enjoyed a better World Cup and a third Grand Slam in seven years, but nothing like the same feel good factor or success rate with their provinces.
Yet for how much longer will this apply given the shrinking worth of the Welsh regions and a flight of Wild Geese-like proportions of their leading lights to French club rugby.
It’s worth noting the Welsh regions have even less restrictions on overseas players. The IRFU hierarchy should also be aware their attempts to cut short the long-term commitment of players such as Isa Nacewa, John Afoa and Doug Howlett will only intensify the loyalty which indigenous Irish players – rightly aggrieved by what they see as an attack on their team-mates – feel to their provinces.
Against that, credit where it is due for the IRFU, for despite the ardours of an 11-month competitive season wherein a frontline Leinster player could realistically have played up to 40 matches, none of those going to New Zealand after Sunday’s Pro12 final will have started more than 27 games. Rob Kearney, who started in Murrayfield on that first Saturday in August, still hasn’t played 2,000 minutes this season.
All that said, even with most sporting eyes trailing towards Poland and the Ukraine, a first win over New Zealand would be a good bookend for the season.