If Kidney’s favourite mantra of the last six months has been the yawning chasm between test rugby and Heineken Cup rugby, the theme for the coming season has become clear this week; how much more important playing for your country is than for your province. Similar, but subtly different. Brian O’Driscoll - always the man to get the party line across to the media – underlined all this in an interview with Simon Hick on Monday night. Being a provincial legend is all well and good, he said, but the players and fans – don’t forget the fans – have to remember that it’s playing for your country that’s the greatest honour and to which the greatest importance must be attached.
This season always looked like one in which the national team would strike back at the increasingly successful and popular provinces, and this is just another part of the process. That’s the same process that sees a 30-strong group of players convening in Carton House this week for a bit of training and, it would seem, some manly chats about where the team is going and how to correct the slide.
There’s shades of ‘All Back to 2008′ about this. When we last heard this sort of thing aired, it was when ROG said the players ‘needed to buy into the green shirt a bit more’ in the aftermath of Munster’s second string giving New Zealand a right good scare, just days after Ireland barely fired a shot against them. And we all know what came next. But can the old magic be conjured up again?
While it’s difficult to argue with the message in and of itself, it’s not the sort of thing that can be manufactured. It’s all well and good telling the public that the green jersey is more important than the provincial one, but it can only be truly demonstrated on the pitch. And Sexton’s argument that the players must perform a notch better in green than with the provinces is perfectly fine, except that it is apparent that the coaching and tactics enable a much higher performance level with the provinces than with Ireland. Wasn’t it Sexton himself who once said that he was “delighted to be back in an environment where you know exactly what the coaches want of you”? We’ll leave it to you to guess which environment he was describing.
The first port of call for the IRFU is selling tickets to the upcoming November internationals, and they’re not an attractive bunch of fixtures. Ireland play Fiji in Limerick and the dull, grinding Boks and Pumas will aim to do their thing at the Aviva. It’s hard to look good against any of them and the public will expect wins against Argentina and Fiji. Ireland must win all three to deliver a positive series and build momentum for the Six Nations. Failure to do so and the pressure gets ramped up another notch. This season has a ‘last days of Rome’ air about it for the national coaching ticket.