European Cup maulings a blow to Irish rugby’s morale
Despite being reigning champions, Ireland at a low ebb as the Six Nations beckons
Joe Schmidt: will be trying to rebuild Irish confidence when the squad assembles at Carton House. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho
Well, that did it. As if Ireland’s worst collective performance in European rugby for 18 years wasn’t bad enough, the loss of Marty Moore for the Six Nations in the aftermath of Leinster’s embarrassing 51-10 defeat to Wasps sealed the deal.
Ireland may be back-to-back reigning Six Nations champions and in pursuit of an historic three-in-a-row but things have changed and it’s hard to recall when Ireland last went into the annual championship at such a low ebb.
No Paul O’Connell, no Peter O’Mahony, concerns over Johnny Sexton’s well-being, major issues at tighthead, no defence coach, new captain, new doctor, new bagman and a little beaten up collectively in Europe.
Ulster’s form against French opposition, and the return of both Jared Payne and Rob Henshaw have been bonuses. They are the likely Ireland midfield, although Payne looks a very viable option at 15 too.
Of course, the process of renewing the feel good factor of the last two successes at Carton House this week could be just the antidote which the Irish players need. Poor provincial form does not necessarily equate to a poor Six Nations. After all, only Leinster reached the knockout stages last season, but then again they are Ireland’s bulk supplier.
By contrast, the last time no Irish side made the knockout stages of the European Cup was back in 1997-98. It was also the last time Ireland were whitewashed and collected the dreaded wooden spoon.
Then, as now, Connacht kept interest afloat by reaching the last eight in the Challenge Cup under Warren Gatland; the difference being that the pool stages of the European competitions were run off by the end of October and the tournaments themselves were completed by January.
Gatland actually succeeded Brian Ashton at short notice after the opening defeat at home to Scotland – which would prove the wooden spoon decider – but despite nearly masterminding a shock win away to then reigning champions France, could not avoid defeat at home to Wales or away to England. This is not to suggest that a similar fate awaits Ireland under Joe Schmidt this time around.
The Ospreys blew it again, and haven’t won away in Europe since beating Viadana in 2009. But then again, the poor performances of their regions have never appeared to remotely affect Wales at Test level heretofore.
Even so, all told, 11 of Leinster’s Irish Six Nations contingent were in Saturday’s starting line-up, with a 12th on the bench, and in addition to the physical damage which Johnny Sexton and Marty Moore suffered, the scale of the 51-10 defeat cannot have been mentally beneficial for Jack McGrath, Seán Cronin, Devin Toner, Rhys Ruddock, Jamie Heaslip, Eoin Reddan and the Kearney brothers, all of whom could be involved against Wales on Sunday week.
Allowing for Leinster being in a vulnerable place mentally, last weekend underlined the undoubted and uncomfortable shift in the balance of power at European club level.
Even in the unproductive mid to late ’90s, the Irish teams were usually good for a home win or two against English sides, and granted Leinster maintained that trend by beating Bath with the help of six full European debutants. But last Saturday in the Ricoh Arena was more typical of Anglo-Irish meetings this season.
For the first time ever, Leinster, Ulster and Munster all suffered home defeats and double defeats to English opposition, in the shape of Wasps, Saracens and Leicester. What’s more, in those six games the Irish teams failed to pick up a single losing bonus point while conceding three attacking bonus points – i e the cumulative match points tally from the six games was 27-0. The try tally was 23-6 to the English teams, and the aggregate points total was 159-61, which equates to an average losing margin of over 16 points.
In the long proud history of the Irish provinces in Europe, there has never been a collective failure like this. For sure, there were a myriad of factors at work – the moving on of the last vestiges of Munster’s golden generation, Leinster’s World Cup hangover and the advent of new coaching tickets, injuries etc.
An Anglo-French carve-up is, of course, exactly what Bruce Craig, Paul Goze, Jacky Lorenzetti and both Premiership Rugby and the Ligue Nationale de Rugby wanted when they threatened boycotts, court cases and all sorts of other bully-boy tactics.
This has also been reflected in the heightened financial clout of the English clubs, witness the loss of JJ Hanrahan and Wasps’ move for Marty Moore. Nor is this likely to abate any time soon. The damage done to the collective Irish rugby psyche in this season’s European Cup pool stages has been significant. Maybe somebody should tell David Nucifora and the IRFU.