Bigger budgets and larger squads leaves Irish Provinces in struggle behind Europe’s rich clubs
It feels odd to be writing the European season off but it’s clear the Irish teams won’t win it out
It’s a sign of the times that we’re sitting here the week before Christmas and already it’s pretty obvious that there will be no Irish winner of the European Champions Cup. Any small hope Ulster had went up in smoke over the weekend. But even if Leinster or Munster or both manage to scrape through to the knock-out stages, it’s really stretching it to think that either of them will be in the final at the start of May.
Munster and Leinster aren’t at that level this season. The standard has increased so much that it’s left both of them behind. Even though we all could see this coming to some extent, it still feels odd to be writing off the European season this early. But what other way is there to see it?
Look at the tables and you can see that five out of the eight quarter-final spots are more or less sewn up. Toulouse, Toulon and Clermont would need serious meltdowns at this point not to go through. Northampton and Racing will probably both qualify out of Pool Five because Ospreys and Treviso have been whipping boys in that group. Four French clubs and one English one – tells its own story.
Players are low
But they’ve only scored four tries in four matches, the joint- lowest total of all the teams in the competition. Which doesn’t bode well, considering they are going to need at least one bonus-point win and maybe two to get out of the pool. It’s a three-way scrap now, which is exactly what they didn’t want it to be.
I was interested to see Brian O’Driscoll have a bit of a pop on TV at the Leinster fans who were leaving early and voicing their discontent at the performance. This is new territory for Leinster but it’s the way of the world. You go up, you come down. After a few seasons of success, you only have to dip a little for the die-hard supporters to become obvious. They separate themselves very quickly from the rest.
Leinster supporters have been spoilt. There’s no arguing with that. In the same way as Munster supporters were spoiled in the years when we were winning in Europe, they’ve come to expect a certain standard. It’s as if they don’t realise what went into making them a success in the first place. Or maybe they think it all just happened naturally.
This feeds down to players. It can harden them against the outside world. Players live in a bit of a bubble, even in Ireland. It can be easy to get carried away into thinking that support is support, regardless of how the games go. Strange as it might seem, it can come as a surprise to players when they find out that we’re not talking about unconditional love here.
I remember it happening to us in Munster and, at the start, thinking it was unfair. This was new to us. All the way through the various seasons we’d had in Europe, the support just grew and grew. Even when we came up short, supporters would back us. Maybe it seems silly now looking back but that’s what I thought support was.
And when it started to ebb away, it was annoying. Fans would be leaving games early and pretty soon after that, not coming at all. The criticism got louder and came earlier in games. You got to find out after a while who was really committed to the team and who just wanted to be entertained.
Behind the team
I’m not saying it’s a big factor at all but it does have an effect on players’ attitudes. It can bring the team closer and make them cynical about the praise that came their way in the good times. In a way, it makes them more professional. This is a hard-nosed business and that’s how they have to approach it. It can create a distance between the team and the support.
The easy option is to hammer the coach. It goes with the territory of taking one of the big jobs in European rugby and Matt O’Connnor would have known what he was getting into. But it doesn’t sit easy with me the way people are piling in on O’Connor these days. Some of the criticism is pretty ignorant of reality.
No mitigating factors
Leinster can’t replace like with like when Seán O’Brien, Cian Healy and Gordon D’Arcy are out. You can’t take those three plus Brian O’Driscoll, Johnny Sexton, Isa Nacewa and Leo Cullen out of the picture and expect to see the same level of performance. You have to deal in reality. And there’s no colder reality than the top level of European competition.
Look what you’re losing in those guys. Experience, nous, good decision-making, composure, control, leadership. That ability to make lesser players play above themselves while at the same time bringing their own level of performance out onto the pitch. Take out one or two of those kind of players and you can absorb it. Take out half a team of them and you need a level of depth that just isn’t available in Ireland.
This has been the season when the difference in budgets has looked really obvious. Look at what Clermont Auvergne were able to do between their two matches against Munster. Naipolioni Nalaga went out of the team, Zac Guilford – a player with 11 caps for the All Blacks – came in. Nick Abendanon went off injured in the first match and Jonathan Davies – a Lions centre with nearly 50 caps for Wales – came on.
Look at Munster by comparison. They were missing four front-row players in David Kilcoyne, Mike Sherry, Damien Varley and James Cronin. John Ryan and Duncan Casey did well to fill in but these guys had never started a European game before this season. Clermont can replace internationals with internationals. Munster can’t. Leinster can’t.
The Irish provinces can’t compete with that any more. We’re not in the same market. Dan Carter might be going to Racing next season to replace Johnny Sexton. A different planet.
Beyond the individual qualities these players are able to bring in with them, the knock-on effect on their opposition can be pretty deflating. You don’t get that lift from seeing one of their main guys go out of the team because you know that whatever replacement comes in will probably be just as good. And he’ll be playing with a bit of anger because he’s not in the team in the first place.
Gulf in qualityAndrew Conway
The pace and power and handling ability when Clermont got going in broken play was unstoppable. Munster were hanging on by a thread. We’ve all made a big deal of them nicking a bonus point at the end – and rightly so because it was a remarkable piece of survival. But doesn’t that tell you a story in itself?
Even if that point is crucial in the end and even if they do make it through to the knock- out stages, I think it’s clear that they would only be delaying the inevitable. A quarter-final or a semi-final is the best either they or Leinster can hope for at this stage.
The quality of the likes of Clermont and Toulon is staring everyone in the face. The Irish provinces are miles off it and they will need an incredible amount of luck to make a challenge for the title in May.