Madcap season of highs and lows reserves Best until last
Retirements and departures leave huge voids at Leinster, Munster and Connacht
Leinster’s Isa Nacewa, head coach Joe Schmidt and Jonathan Sexton celebrate winning the RaboDirect Pro12 Final against Ulster at the weekend . Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho
A tumultuous end to a tumultuous season. Somehow you knew there had to be one last dramatic development on the final weekend of the campaign; and thankfully it wasn’t an injury to rule out a would-be Lion. Dylan Hartley’s red card for verbally abusing referee Wayne Barnes resulted in Rory Best being added to the squad.
It’s been that kind of season.
From the promise of the November window through Leinster’s pool exit, Ireland’s extraordinary injury toll during a non-vintage Six Nations, the sad end of Declan Kidney’s reign, the promotion of Joe Schmidt, the utterly regrettable loss of Jonny Sexton to Racing Metro, Isa Nacewa’s departure, Munster rising from the ashes in Europe, the retirement of Ronan O’Gara and others, with O’Gara pitching up in Racing as well, “one more year” for “you know who”, and finally Leinster’s double – all to the constant and typically deafening din of an impending Lions tour.
It was mad stuff really.
At the end of it all the prime beneficiaries of all the coming and going might just be Team Ireland. The latter have dipped into Leinster more than any of the other provinces in latter years and have now taken the province’s coach as well. Even Sexton’s move to Paris clears the way for Ian Madigan to develop his exciting abilities still further, thereby increasing Ireland’s options, with Sexton still on hand to play for Ireland and work with the coach who has brought the best out of him.
That though, is Irish rugby’s only plus side to Sexton’s departure and it remains to be seen whether it is beneficial to his career.
While it raises his earning power and by extension the stakes for other players and agents, not alone does nobody in Leinster want it to happen, the nearer it comes to fruition you sense Sexton himself is having regrets.
Watching him, Nacewa and Schmidt being hoisted into the air after Saturday’s valedictory performance, you couldn’t avoid the thought that no matter what he may achieve with Racing, it cannot carry the same significance as winning trophies with his mates and in front of family and friends with his native province. He is a class act and you wish him well and even though Madigan has a mature head on young shoulders to go with his X-factor game, Sexton is a huge loss.
That O’Gara will be in Paris as a confidant, adviser and mate is a positive development. For two such intensely driven, high-achieving characters, there was always going to be an edge to their rivalry, but out of respect has grown a friendship – O’Gara has been invited to Sexton’s wedding in July after all. Moreover, partly out of necessity being the mother of invention, as Rick said to Louie, this could be “the beginning of a beautiful friendship”.
O’Gara was never likely to slink off into the night quietly, though in the end there was no big farewell or valedictory finish. That said, to orchestrate Munster’s comeback against Clermont in Munster’s epic Heineken Cup semi-final in Montpellier was a much more suitable finale to his illustrious career than the way his international career ended in the Six Nations.
O’Gara may not have been the biggest, strongest or even quickest outhalf Ireland has ever produced, but he had an extraordinary skill set and phenomenal mental strength. So much so, in fact, that he can legitimately be called the best given the way he maintained such consistently high standards over 17 seasons with Munster and Ireland. And among his 240 games and 2,625 points for Munster, along with 128 games and 1,083 points for Ireland (ridiculous figures when you actually stop and think about them) he’ll always have two Heineken Cups and that Grand Slam-winning drop goal among other achievements.
He’ll leave a huge void at Munster, as a character as well as a leader and player, as will Doug Howlett. Granted, Munster’s best two performances of the season came after the shoulder injury which ended his career. But aside from the wholehearted endeavour, classy finishes and consistency of performances, one ventures those of us on the outside will never fully appreciate what he gave to the Munster squad.
Similarly, the way Nacewa bought into the Leinster ethos and applied his extraordinary gifts, while demonstrating his phenomenal versatility right up until his very last game, utterly ridiculed the IRFU’s daft restrictions on overseas players.
Irish rugby needs more players of their quality and for them to stay as long as possible.
As well as O’Gara, Marcus Horan may not have been the biggest or strongest in his position. But he was one of the quickest (witness 32 tries for country and province) and so punched way above his weight at the highest level for 15 seasons with Munster and a dozen for Ireland. They can all ride off into the sunset with pride in stellar careers, while the void in Leinster and Munster is arguably matched in Connacht just by dint of Eric Elwood moving on, not to mention the retirements of two true stalwarts in Johnny O’Connor and Adrian Flavin.
No one has ever given more to one province than Elwood to Connacht, first as player, then as assistant coach and head coach – so much so that it virtually left him drained by the end of it.
Every bit as much as Schmidt at Leinster, he will be one tough act to follow.
Great occasion though last Saturday was, a venue bigger than the RDS – that is the Aviva – could have accommodated an even bigger crowd. And so, as Mark Anscombe believes, an opportunity was lost. The Rabo Pro12 has come a long way, albeit tortuously. And while a four-nation league creates more logistical difficulties than say the Premiership or the Top 14, it has to keep aiming bigger, whether that means gambling on a venue such as the Aviva a year out, be it for one year or even three years.