Had I not been denied the rained-out fixture at Scotstoun to write up, this would have been the 18th consecutive weekend of Leinster and/or Ireland rugby for my consideration.
So I reckon that’s a decent enough stretch of time to take a step back and look at just how things have gone so far. Here are the results to date :
Week 1 - WALES 21-35 IRELAND
Week 2 - IRELAND 28-22 SCOTLAND
Week 3 - Ulster 21-24 Leinster
Week 4 - Leinster 68-0 Moseley IRELAND 10-16 WALES
Week 5 - Edinburgh 16-9 Leinster ENGLAND 21-13 IRELAND
Week 6 - Leinster 23-15 Cardiff Blues
Week 7 - IRELAND 50-7 CANADA
Week 8 - IRELAND 44-10 ROMANIA
Week 9 - Leinster 37-13 NG Dragons IRELAND 16-9 ITALY
Week 10 - FRANCE 9-24 IRELAND
Week 11 - Scarlets 25-14 Leinster IRELAND 20-43 ARGENTINA
Week 12 - Leinster 23-18 Glasgow Warriors
Week 13 - Benetton Treviso 3-27 Leinster
Week 14 - Leinster A 24-43 Connacht Eagles Leinster 19-15 Scarlets
Week 15 - Rotherham Titans 9-12 Leinster A Leinster 6-33 Wasps
Week 16 - Leinster 55-12 Moseley Bath 19-16 Leinster
Week 17 - Leinster 8-3 Ulster
Week 18 - Glasgow v Leinster ppd
There’s no sugar coating it. The Argentina and Wasps results stand out a mile and they clearly define the way the season has gone so far.
In August before the World Cup warmups, any Ireland fan who had been following the team probably would have known not to underestimate Argentina but still would be forgiven for thinking France was the big match to target.
By the same token, any Leinster fan knew their team was in a stinker of a Champions Cup pool and while Wasps were never going to be pushovers, if you had to say one of the six pool matches was the “easiest”, it would have been the home fixture against Dai Young’s men, and it happened to be first.
Well one by one those notions weren’t so much as proven wrong but they were blown out of the water, and it’s hard not to still feel the aftershocks from those two heavy defeats in particular.
Though the pain isn’t just being felt in Leinster...Ulster had their own home European disappointment while over the past couple of weeks Munster have been the ones falling short of the standard expected.
Naturally the very big exception has been Connacht...they were unlucky in Cardiff on Friday and thoroughly deserve to be the top Irish province in the Pro12 right now. Having watched their “Eagles” team play at Donnybrook it is clear to see that Pat Lam has instilled a culture of rugby throughout the squad and they are reaping the benefits on the pitch despite a horrible bout of injuries.
So the question remains...is it possible for Irish rugby as a whole to recover from the disappointments and come out the other side? Complicated question, that.
I summarized Ireland’s World Cup campaign already in this post so today the focus will be mainly on the boys in blue, though as we all know the fortunes of one (or misfortunes?) will always affect the other.
This coming weekend Leinster play Toulon at the Stade Mayol, and six days later, the reigning Euro champs come to the Aviva. Filling HQ won’t be easy given all that has gone before. Apparently 40k tickets have been sold, though that includes the season ticket holders. Will they all show up? It’s when the chips are down when we see the true fans, and judging by the droves that were heading for the exits with as many as 20 minutes left in the Wasps match, the wider public are growing weary already.
I don’t mean to give out too much about the “fair weather fans”, however. Not everyone is as wild about rugby as someone like me who runs a blog, or indeed someone like yourself who reads one. But the fact remains the game needs those fans every bit as much as it needs us, and if the performances or possibly more importantly the results don’t improve soon, they will stay away for longer.
Another thing that will influence those fans’ decision-making will be the contract negotiations, which are ongoing as I type. We are technically in rugby’s “transfer window”, though instead of watching Jim White on Sky News for an entire day, we must continue to check back to Twitter for a few weeks to see what announcements have been made, or in Leinster’s case, wait for the age old “en masse revelation”.
Before I go on about the haggling...I should point out that I HATE the way it takes place at this stage of the season. The week leading up to the superb “back-to-back” series, always one of the hallmarks of the Heineken (plus one) Cup, should be spent discussing the matchups themselves not where half the players are going to be next season. Yet that is only one of the many unfortunate realities we just have to accept I suppose.
One of the highest profile players under contract negotiations right now is Ian Madigan. He has three choices as it appears… (1) Stay with Leinster and be second fiddle with both province and country (2) Make the big-money England/France move, compete for first fiddle with club and probably drop down pecking order with country, and (3) Move to Munster and be first fiddle for province and remain second fiddle for country.
Personally I only see one viable option there that maximizes the benefit for everyone - (3). And I’m glad it’s on the table for him. Let the provincial bickering happen - “We don’t want him here” from Munster, “We don’t want him to go there” from Leinster. That’s never going to change. But somebody needs to be able to rise above all that and look at what’s best for the game as a whole and for me that’s the essence of David Nucifora’s job. It would of course be great to have all three presumptive starting out-halves on Irish soil.
That said, I wouldn’t be wild about the whole “leave the country, blow your chances” concept either, and I really hope Nucifora doesn’t think that way. I was impressed by JJ Hanrahan’s outing for Northampton last weekend and I would have no problem with him being involved in the Irish set up if his form continues. By the same token, if Madigan feels the move abroad is best for his career then that is certainly his decision to make.
Anyway...I’m straying a bit from the overall point, which is that we must find a way of ensuring the fans don’t drift away from senior rugby matches, and we’ll need at least a reasonable amount of success at both provincial and test levels. The realities of the modern game dictate that in order to do this, we’ll need massive wads of cash, and I very much doubt we’re generating anywhere near as much on these shores as are the top English and French clubs.
So....what do we do? Sit back and let our provinces regress to their standing on the continent from the early noughties? Or do we find a way to at least come close to matching the ambitions of the Premiership chairmen and Top 14 sugar daddies?
There is certainly plenty to ponder. Perhaps some “creative” solutions are required.
One thing that will help in the immediate future will be a decent string of good performances from Leinster Rugby, and we certainly have a challenging schedule ahead of us before the Six Nations kicks off...
Sun Dec 13
Toulon v Leinster
Fri Dec 11
Leinster A v Ealing Trailfinders
Sat Dec 19
Ealing Trailfinders v Leinster A
Sat Dec 19
Leinster v Toulon
Sun Dec 27
Munster v Leinster
Fri Jan 1
Leinster v Connacht
Fri Jan 8
Ospreys v Leinster
Fri Jan 15
Moseley v Leinster A
Leinster v Bath
Sat Jan 23
Leinster A v Rotherham Titans
Wasps v Leinster
Newport Gwent Dragons v Leinster
Sun Feb 7
IRELAND v WALES
...and one thing Leinster can do to help show fans sitting on the fence that it’s worth keeping faith with the province is to display the talent that is ready to step up to the next level. For in players like Garry Ringrose, Josh van der Flier and Luke McGrath there is certainly plenty of it, and at key positions as well.
If Leo can continue his policy of giving them game time (in fact particularly in Ringrose’s case he could increase it especially if, as expected, we learn that Te’o is due to depart) then that will give us plenty of hope for the seasons to come. The rumours of Henshaw’s imminent arrival being true certainly wouldn’t hurt either.
Personally, I am all but resigned to our not emerging from that RCC pool. That doesn’t mean I want us to give up without a fight though. Most of the squad, Sexton included, has had at least one crack at Toulon in the last couple of years, so there is plenty of incentive to go all out for the next couple of weeks and remind the rest of the continent just why there are three stars on our jersey.
One thing that has impressed overall this season at Leinster has been our defence. (Remember - I’m talking from the season overall, not just that one forgettable Sunday v Wasps) The attacking prowess to go with it has been slow coming, but there have definitely been signs that we’re going in the right direction.
I’ll harp more on Toulon in particular towards the end of the week, but while the disappointment so far has been tough to digest, you won’t find me writing off the season just yet, particularly with Pro12 and Six Nations titles definitely in play. JLP
@HarpinOnRugby If the "debate" in last 24hrs is indicator Nucifora has helluva task on his hands. IMO he must succeed or we are all screwed.— Brian Donnelly (@bptd1234) December 8, 2015