Well, that just about wraps up our summer series. Thanks for all the comments and interaction, we hope you enjoyed the trip down memory lane. For us anyway, it wasn’t just an exercise in dewy-eyed nostalgia, but an attempt to put in a wider context where Irish rugby has found itself and how it got there. Because, looking back, Irish rugby is in an entirely new place and experiencing something it’s never had to deal with before.
In 2012, Irish rugby is more fragmented than it’s ever been. We’ve had spells of woeful inadequacy, but the rugby public suffered as one. We’ve also had periods of greatness, and the joy was shared in by all. In 2012, your view of the past season is almost certainly coloured by what province you come from. Leinster fans had a great time. They’ll be able to look past the national team’s failures and their memory banks will be dominated by the Heineken Cup win and great rugby their team played. Ulster fans likewise had a memorable year. But Munster fans had neither provincial nor international success to celebrate and probably took the national team’s ills harder because they had little to compensate for it.
The rise of the provinces has been a key ingredient in the success of Irish rugby over the last decade – we hope this came out clearly in the eight game series. They have pooled talent into an appropriate number of teams to ensure competitiveness, brought new fans into rugby grounds and – most importantly – given us historic days out that won’t be forgotten any time soon. And they’ve won shedloads of silver. The IRFU has been rightly praised for getting its structures right in that the provinces exist as entities within their own right, but ultimately feed the national team. The idea that provincial success is now detrimental to the national team – peddled by certain journalists looking to justify a pre-conveiced opinion – is simply ridiculous. It is nonsensical to suggest that if Leinster, Ulster and Munster were struggling to get out of their pools that Team Ireland would somehow be better off. We reject it utterly.
The IRFU and Kidney need to make sure they don’t allow themselves to go down this path. Indications are that they are already doing so. It looks as if the provinces have grown to the stage where the IRFU does not know what to do with them. In the last twelve months we’ve had the new player succession rules, some pretty spotty low-budget recruiting, and from Kidney, sounds about the provinces not generating enough match-time for certain players and how he’d ideally have the players in camp rather than competing in Cup finals. They need to be very careful here. French rugby is currently marooned in a club vs. country wasteland. In the last Six Nations they won two of five games and the Top 14 was unwatchable this year. If France – with its huge player pool, wonderful history, passionate supporter base and superb youth sports programs – can be brought so low by political in-fighting, what chance does a small country like Ireland have?
So much commentary (including our own) is fixated on Kidney’s selection and tactics, but there is a bigger picture: if Deccie is going to see the provinces as a nuisance to be battled with, then he has no chance of succeeding. Our understanding is that his relationship with the provincial coaches is close to negligible. This is a road doomed to failure. The coach who does succeed will be the one who can harness what the provinces are doing for his own gain.
It is tempting at this point to rush towards Muddy Williams’ touted concept of the ‘national game plan’, apparently the approach taken in New Zealand. But such notions appear fanciful, in the medium term at least. The Irish talent pool just isn’t deep enough. The coaches at Ulster, Munster, Leinster and Connacht each have to cut their cloth according to what’s available. For example, Ireland has just two top-grade fly-halves, and they play and see the game very differently. Each is good enough to have the team’s style of play built around their talents. But it would be bizarre to tell Rob Penney to make Munster play more like Leinster, or to ask Schmidt to get Sexton to kick the corners a bit more. Their jobs are tough enough as it is. And who decides what the national game plan is anyway? Presumably the national team coach. So, Kidney telling Schmidt how to play rugby? It sounds like a practical joke. It just doesn’t seem workable on any level.
There’s no obvious solution, but it’s hard to escape the thought that Kidney could do more to embrace what’s happening in provinces, especially Leinster. But just as Eddie O’Sullivan was unwilling to follow a Munster-based approach in spite of picking so many of their number, Kidney seems to be trying to get players who clearly so enjoy what they do at provincial level to play a very different way. Throw in his mantra-like repetition of the venerated status of test rugby, and you’re looking at a coach that’s increasingly stubborn and embattled. It’s no platform for success. Kidney needs help from the IRFU here, too. It would help if the provinces didn’t feel they were being dictated to in terms of who they can play and when. All that said, both Joe Schmidt is on record as having welcomed the ‘increased dialogue’ between national and provincial coaches last week, while Rob Penney enjoyed a ‘robust talk’ with Kidney on arriving at Munster. Maybe the tide is turning, slowly.
Secondly, the players, Kidney and the IRFU need to make an investment to win back an increasingly disillusioned support base. If the IRFU is wondering why the provinces have such pulling power, they might just take a look at the product they provide: cheap, accessible tickets to tightly packed grounds, family-friendly set-ups, a strong bond with the players, away trips to the South of France and great rugby towns like Bath and Northampton. Little wonder that the more corporate, expensive and often dull Six Nations is not terribly attractive. Casting one’s mind back over the last few years, you have to go back to 2007 to recall the last genuinely thrilling Six Nations. Sure, the 2009 Grand Slam was incredible, but looking at it objectively, it wasn’t a classic series by any means.
Supporting Ireland is no craic at all these days. Tom Fox wrote in a recent piece for Setanta that nobody really ‘owns’ the national team. Fans will never allow their provincial team to be slagged by another team’s mob (go onto any of the fans’ forums for proof), but everyone is happy to dump on the national team. There are easy scapegoats for all. Leinster and Ulster fans blame the coach no matter what, while Munster fans see a Leinster-dominated team and blame the players. It’s tiresome. Some effort needs to be made to bring a bit of fun, a bit of excitement into the national team.
When you watch YouTube videos of Shaggy’s try in Twickenham or BOD’s hat-trick in Paris, there’s a sense that they were more innocent times and that something’s been lost. It’s a sad day when suporters see the Six Nations, such a great old tournament with such rich history, as something to be got over. In 2008, after Munster almost beat the Kiwis, ROG said that ‘maybe we need to buy into the green shirt a bit more’. And maybe the same applies to the fans today. We could all do with falling in love with the national team again. But the powers that be have to make it easier for us.