We should enjoy these moments while they last

 

ON RUGBY:Three quarter-finalists, a semi-finalist, plus two rentals of the Aviva Stadium. So, why are the IRFU running the risk of destroying all of this with their rigid restrictions on foreign players?

EVEN BY the Heineken Cup’s high dramatic standards, this season’s tournament has been bookended by one of the most dramatic closing weekends in its history. Thanks in part should go to teams with supposedly nothing to play for, such as Connacht, Gloucester, Treviso and, it has to be said, Racing Metro.

Where would Irish rugby be without the provinces and the Heineken Cup in January, or Ireland full stop? Those provincial jerseys are sprinkled with magic, alright. Leinster continue to live up to the highest standards despite delving deeper into their squad and are helping to pull the others along.

Munster’s Tony McGahan is arguably the coach of the season so far for presiding over six wins from six, given they came up short last year, lost the likes of Doug Howlett, David Wallace, Felix Jones, Jerry Flannery and now Denis Leamy for the guts of the season, and are in such a transitional phase they blooded nine players in the Cup this season.

They couldn’t have done it without the totemic Ronan O’Gara and Paul O’Connell. That 43-phase, six-minute drive and O’Gara drop goal to beat Northampton on the opening weekend was the single most significant and memorable play of the season, and the day the baton was passed on.

On Saturday, Sky commentator Mark Robson was moved to apologise when their microphone picked up O’Connell’s parting mantra in the away dressingroom.

“F***ing character,” he shouted. It’s better to be in an army of sheep led by a Lion than in an army of Lions led by a sheep.

But Ulster will travel to Thomond Park in better shape than ever. Taking last season’s hard-earned home win over Bath and the 20-point beating in Biarritz as benchmarks, the way they destroyed Leicester and rattled Clermont’s cage last Saturday underlines as much.

The Union’s investment in the provinces has again yielded a minimum tranche of four bonus payments of €420,000 from the ERC for having three quarter-finalists and a semi-finalist, plus two rentals of the Aviva Stadium. So, why giveth with one hand and taketh away with the other? Or, why risk destroying all of this with their rigid restrictions on foreign players? Four winners in the last three years and now three quarter-finalists for the first time ever. We should enjoy this while it lasts, because these things are cyclical.

Two years ago, when Toulouse and Biarritz reached the final in Paris, some wrongly jumped to the conclusion this would presage an era of dominance from the cash-rich Top 14, ignoring the fact that only one side had reached a losing quarter-final the year before (inevitably Toulouse) and that both those finalists had benefited from “home” semi-finals.

But the Irish performances in the pool stages are no flash in the pan.

With Connacht punching above their weight in a ferociously tough group (to put their meetings with Toulouse in perspective, Connacht’s budget of less than €3 million is dwarfed by Toulouse’s €33 million, the biggest in Europe) to deservedly earn their first tournament win on Friday, the Irish won 16, drew one and lost seven of their 24 games for a winning ratio of 69 per cent.

Next up are the Scottish duo with a winning ratio of 64 per cent, followed by the Welsh on 59 per cent, then the English on 50 per cent, the French on 41 per cent and the Italians on nine per cent.

Collectively, the Celts have never had such a large contingent in the last eight, while England’s tally equals their all-time low of one set two years ago (and they only had two last season). Furthermore, none of Leicester, London Irish or Bath even earned the consolation of an Amlin Challenge Cup place, which used to be a Premiership carve-up, but not any more.

Cue inevitable bleatings from across the water. The die had barely been cast on the final round than Premiership Rugby’s CEO Mark McCafferty was, as usual, given unquestioning mouthpieces. He bemoaned the lack of relegation in the Pro12, where they can target European rugby more readily and generally qualify each year automatically.

Boo-hoo. Thus, he deduced with little Englander mentality, there should be eight teams each from their Premiership, the Top 14 and the Pro12. Aside from taking another step towards a glorified Anglo-French Cup (the pool stages would feature four English and four French derbies) it could banish one or even two countries entirely in a given year. That’s getting into the European spirit.

Relegation and the qualification rules didn’t stop England providing three quarter-finalists for five years running from 2005 to ’09, nor Wasps beating Leicester in an all-English final in ’07. Nothing’s changed.

Besides, both the Premiership and Top 14 generate far more revenue from television and sponsorship than the Pro12. English rugby would do better, as Gloucester’s head coach Bryan Redpath suggested on Sky, to look at its attritional, crash-test-dummy rugby as compared to the more adventurous Celts. Then again, Redpath is a Scot and, along with Harlequins, Gloucester are the most watchable team in England.

For sure the Celts do feel more inclined toward targeting European rugby, but that’s as much a question of priority (from supporters and media as well as players and coaches).

The English could also look at the greater stadia development amongst the Irish and Welsh. That said, the comparatively cash-strapped Welsh regions are struggling to fill their stadia, so this is very much an Irish-led Celtic assault.

The French are happy with the current format and as a World Cup season (Leicester have never progressed now in four World Cup seasons) it is something of an odd year. It took the spine away from the Biarritz team, for example. And with Perpignan in decline and Stade Français being relaunched by Michael Cheika, the French were not best represented. Furthermore, when they delve into their squads you can evidently see how far their general conditioning levels have fallen behind.

But, for all its wealth, foreign imports and benefactors, the Top 14 remains, a la the Premier League in England, something of a circus act which works against its national team. Nor do they have the same sense of culture and identity between fans and players who truly represent their regions.