"I was a football fan before I became a rugby fan."
In the wake of the Rugby World Cup Irish sports fans were treated to an unlikely series of results that allowed the soccer team reach the playoffs and secure a cherished spot at EURO 2016 in France. With sports minds, sponsors and armchair enthusiasts now gearing their plans to next June when Martin O’Neill and Roy Keane ply their wits against Sweden, Belgium and Italy. The hopes of 1988 and 1994 set to be resurrected as the Republic of Ireland go in search of a dream place in the last sixteen or quarter finals.
A search that failed to deliver for Joe Schmidt’s XV last October and only resurrected memories of those implacable Pumas as Ireland fell once again to the same world cup adversary. With the provinces now teetering on the brink in the newly designed Champions Cup, only Ulster have hope as Munster failed and former three time Champions Leinster were dumped out unceremoniously by holders, RC Toulon. Their efforts only a shade of the work done Michael Cheika in 2011 and Joe Schmidt in subsequent years. The IRFU policy of picking coaches from within the provinces yet to prove itself as a winning formula.
Clearly the financial restraints in the newly revised competition – compared with what was being delivered through the Heineken Cup- will prove costly. The revised Pro 12 is also proving a stretch for Leinster with the irrepressible Connacht again making a claim for their continued existence. A fact that IRFU must now realise as a fait accomplit as Munster and Leinster’s strength dim to new lows. The failure to continue with external coaches following Steve Penney’s departure to Japan was matched after the departure of Matt O’Connor at Leinster. And as the Irish fortunes at England 2015 still linger in the air, rugby followers are suffering from expectation fatigue on all fronts.
The battles at Leinster focus on the arrival of new talent with long-time leader Johnny Sexton waiting for normal service to resume – having played perhaps too much rugby in the past eighteen months. The emotional hangover from the rugby world cup cannot be underestimated either as Schmidt’s squad were more than a fair bet to reach the last four at the start of the tournament. Unfortunately injures and an over physical focus on beating France in the group stage proved costly. With no real plan to take down Argentina, despite some second half heroics from those left standing.
With Ian Madigan now contemplating offers from Bristol and Bordeaux and the Kearney brothers far from their best, there is sense that the future at the Blues is not all good and the good times some distance away yet. With the recent loss of two other pillars, Brian O’Driscoll and Gordon D’Arcy, The Blues have turned to Leo Cullen to drive the opportunity. Despite having only just left the squad relatively recently which may be hard for the former international to put daylight between sharing the dressing and managing it.
Not unlike Graeme Souness who when replacing Kenny Dalglish at Liverpool, had too many players that were his old team mates and so Peter Beardsley, Ray Houghton, Steve Staunton and Steve McMahon were all sold before their time. Although perhaps good for the manager’s psychological advantage in the dressing room, the results never followed and Souness left with that blot still on his CV. Despite a glittering career on Merseyside. Into such a scenario steps Cullen who after a stint in New Zealand returned to the back room team and then follow on from the ousted O’Connor.
Following the unusually poor start to the season the world recruitment has been the catch call as the magic solution for the provinces as the young talent waits to mature. That cry not helped by the views of the IRFU High Performance Director, David Nucifora, this week were as clear as muck in the wake of the news that Wallaby Captain Stephen Moore had turned down an offer to join Munster: “I’m certainly not against foreign players. There definitely is a place for the foreign players in our system because history shows there are a lot of foreign players who have added a heck of a lot of value to Irish rugby over the years.
“So what we need to do is to make sure we have a system that allows foreign players who can contribute in the areas we require them to contribute in both on and off the field, positionally where they can best fit, so there is definitely a place for the foreign player.” The current situation being that the four provinces may contract four foreigners plus one ‘project player’ who would qualify for Ireland after a three-year residency term.
No doubt the unwritten issue is really about money. or moreover, the lack of it
The good news maybe that Sean O’ Brien is to stay on, albeit the only sure thing being that his power and force over the next three years of his deal will be in decline. It could be his role now to ensure those younger players like Jordi Murphy and Rhys Ruddock take their rightful place. In the backs the likes of Garry Ringrose can replace the departing Ben Te’O with Ross Molony and Dominic Ryan already playing bit parts on the first team. If Cullen learned anything while in New Zealand it would the confidence in youth - as proven in the 2015 Rugby World Cup by the All Blacks.
A year ago we had never heard of Nehe Milner-Skudder. Or even Sam Cane as a possible replacement for the irrepressible Richie McCaw. So no braver man than Leo Cullen to test those possibilities at Leinster. As it stands the IRFU are not offering any better plan other than hoping for some Sugar Daddy to copy the Super 14 model. Obviously money talks in sport.
Looks like this summer many of us will be soccer fans before being rugby fans!