Jeremy Guscott yesterday revealed that he thinks interprovincial rivalries, as well as a lack of self-belief, have hindered Ireland. It’s all well and good to say the corpulent one has no idea what he is talking about, but it’s an interesting kite to fly, not least because most people had assumed the occasinally spiteful atmosphere between Leinster and Munster (for it can only be they to whom he is refering) had calmed down a little bit in recent years. Guscott, the owner of several silk scarves, also observed that he didn’t think the entire group ‘were 100% behind some of the coaches’. Some? That can only be with reference to Declan Kidney and in particular that the Leinster players weren’t especially on message with his brand of rugby.
There’s more than a little truth to both points; certainly to look at Ireland in recent years, they haven’t always appeared a team playing as if their lives depend on it. How many times have they sleepwalked into a series only to be cajoled into action in subsequent games by their wounded pride? Certainly, when Leinster were cutting a dash on their way to back to back Heineken Cups under Joe Schmidt’s energising coaching, the body language of the players suggested they were weary and uninspired trying to execute Kidney’s more mundane gameplan. In one interview with Matt Cooper on Newstalk Radio, Johnny Sexton was at pains to point out that what worked so well for Leinster might not have the same effect at test level so he was happy to play a different way for Ireland. Unfortunately, his tone was a giveaway, suggesting he was trying to convince himself as much as anyone.
Then there’s the Ulster players who always appear to draw the short straw come selection time – up to and including this November series (for the majority of the game we won’t be discussing for a while, Tommy Bowe was the only Ulsterman on the field). Men such as Rory Best and Stephen Ferris know of no way of playing other than at full tilt, but this Ulster group have a chippy air about them, and it would be no surprise if they too harboured grievances against management (current and previous) for the manner in which their colleagues appear to consistently miss out on selection.
Since Rob Kearney and the famous Enfield air-clearing, it’s been assumed that the Munster-Leinster divide has been successfully bridged and the longstanding issues put to bed. However, such assumptions are perhaps premature. The Enfield meeting is now five years into the past and much of the playing squad has changed in the meantime. The Munster-Leinster rivalry may not be quite at the white-hot level when Felipe Contepomi was around or in the 2010 aftermath of the great power-shift, but it remains spicy. Who knows if, privately, some of the Leinster players still harbour resentment over the POC-Dave Kearney incident last season, for example??
Johnny Sexton’s autobiography certainly hints at something that would imply the old rifts were still around. He describes how several (presumably Munster) players commiserated ROG on getting dropped, but didn’t extend their congratulations to him on getting selected. He said he knew there were certain players that he, more or less, couldn’t talk to in the squad, and this contributed to a pressurised environment in his early test career. Does that sound like a united squad, with provincial alliances put to the side for teh greater good? Not to us anyway. Maybe, just as Deccie did early in his Ireland coaching career, Schmidty needs to think about some way to get everything on the table and try and unite the group.