Tuesday, April 26, 2016

It's all about the provinces for now

It's all about the provinces for now

They say a rising tide lifts all boats, and this phrase pretty much encapsulates the IRFU’s approach to the four proud provinces, despite the fact that many fans can’t see beyond their own boat.

logo post blueI’ve lost count of the amount of times over the years I have heard or read opinions being expressed by fans, many of them season ticket holders, which bemoan their provinces’ fortunes in areas that ignore the realities of Irish rugby.  It seems to be lost on many people that our provincial teams are not run like clubs in the way Saracens or Racing 92, or even Manchester United and Barcelona, are.

Why are there as many as 10 changes to the starting Pro12 lineup this week?  Why isn’t a certain key player involved in such an important contest?  Why is a certain key player being allowed to move to another province or even abroad? Why aren’t we able to compete for the top coaches anymore?  Don’t get me wrong...these are all legitimate questions, but in most cases they all have the same general answer.

The Test team is the be-all and end-all.  The raison-d’ȇtre.  The end that justifies the means.  The provinces are there first and foremost to provide players for that team.  It has forever been thus, and it will probably forever be thus.

Yet when the test team fails, ironically the opinion also tends to circle around the provincial side of things.  Was the coach favouring one colour over another based on past allegiances?  Should there be more from one particular province based on recent results & form? 

It’s all very, very frustrating.  But ignoring it certainly isn’t going to make it go away.

More than once I have harped on this topic, and I do believe it is a problem that needs addressing.  The IRFU have a point in that some kind of micro-management of the provinces is necessary and a policy like limiting player minutes is a way of doing that.  But also the fans have a point in that they are paying good money for season tickets to watch their provinces and when they see the best players being rested and key combinations not being allowed time to play together regularly, the on-pitch performances and results are bound to suffer.

Piled on top of all of this we have the stark contrast between our provinces’ performances in Europe pre- and post- the BT Revolution.  Six championships and three runners-up a 14-year period is not to be sneezed at.  And at the risk of re-opening old wounds, while the English & French clubs had a point about the inequity of the competition being a factor in that, their solution wasn’t one that solved it, and now we have a tournament where the playing field wasn’t so much evened out, rather tilted in a different direction.

I don’t really care if that last paragraph comes across like sour grapes after the provinces’ collective European failures this season, mostly because it is an opinion I held last season even though my province of choice was only denied another final appearance by the width of an upright.

Anyway...the focus of this post is not on Europe.  And it’s not on the Irish test team either.  It is about Connacht, Leinster, Munster and Ulster.  All of them are still heavily involved in the Guinness Pro12 endgame and whatever about the different perspectives of the IRFU and fans towards them, for the next few weeks ALL of that needs to be put to one side and every available resource needs to be at the disposal of Messrs Lam, Cullen, Foley & Kiss.

From the union’s standpoint, as far as I am concerned, the trip to South Africa and autumn internationals beyond it have to be forgotten for now.  If key players get injured, then so be it.  Just look at the upcoming Pro12 schedules…

MUNSTER

I know this is a Leinster fan site, but it is also an Irish rugby one, and say what you like about what happened to get to this point - the fact remains, Munster are the province most in need of victory over the next two rounds of Pro12 action.

They sit 7th on the table, one point ahead of the Cardiff Blues and level on points with Edinburgh, who they play this weekend.  Since the top six qualify for the Champions Cup, that makes this match in The Park Formerly Known As Musgrave (nod to Prince RIP) the very definition of a “must-win”.

I’m not entirely sure the timing of the announcement of Anthony Foley’s next boss was exactly the best way to help him prepare for such a big match, but what is done is done.  He needs carte blanche to pick his best players, and equally importantly he needs all the bums on seats he can get in Cork this weekend. 

Moaning about past results is only a small part of what sports fandom is...there’s always another match to come and the real fans show their full support regardless - I really hope this happens at all provinces.

And let’s not forget that while the schedule has given Munster two tough opponents in the final weeks, BOTH of them are at home (final match is against top 4 challengers the Scarlets in Thomond) so there is every opportunity for them to get over that line and what a massive boost it would be for Irish rugby to get all four provinces into Europe on merit.

Here’s to the southern province standing up and fighting over the next couple of weeks and getting the job done.

ULSTER

As Leinster go to Belfast this weekend, I must take off the blue goggles for this segment. 

It hasn’t been a great season for them - not as bad as Munster of course and there have been injuries and coaching transitions to consider, but after a run of seasons where they came so tantalisingly close to adding to their European and Celtic League crowns, their recent progress has been something of a recession.

Unfortunately, the schedule hasn’t been quite as favourable to Les Kiss.

Wales has it’s “Judgement Day” this weekend as Cardiff play Ospreys and the NG Dragons play the Scarlets in back-to-back encounters at the Millennium Principality Stadium.  I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest that both the Blues and Scarlets will emerge victorious in those fixtures, quite possibly both with try bonus points.  Does that mean I think they’ll be “rigged”?  Not in the strictest definition of the word, no.  But I still have a feeling that somehow over the 160 minutes of rugby, those results will pan out.

My point is that Ulster have to assume that I’m right in which case they badly need to beat Leinster this weekend to avoid having to get something at the Liberty Stadium in the final round to make the semifinals.  And there is no doubt that the standard of rugby at the Kingspan is such that final four qualification should be a minimum goal for any season.

Again, I hope they are successful in the overall goal, though seeing how this hope overlaps into my own area of fandom, of course I’d prefer they got over the line without a win on Saturday!!!

CONNACHT

I’ve said this before - I feel torn writing about the Westerners.  On the one hand I want to heap endless praise on Pat Lam & co for all they have achieved.  But on the other, I don’t want to sound patronizing and would prefer to judge them just as I would any team competing at the top - they have gotten to this level now, time to crack on and finish the job, and despite some misfortune on the injury front they certainly have both the player pool AND the vocal fan base to get there.

As Lam points out, their goal right now is to secure a home semifinal, and to do this, they will need to beat reigning champions Glasgow in Galway.  Ironically, should they succeed it will probably result in that home semifinal being against that very same Glasgow in that very same Galway.   Both clubs have matches against the hapless Italian duo this weekend...on recent form we must assume this is a guaranteed five pointer for both of them, though it still has to be done of course.

LEINSTER

Let’s face it...with Connacht in the hunt for top spot, NOBODY else in the rugby world is going to give a hoot about how Leinster get on over the coming weeks.  We’re the bad guys for sure.  But should we as fans feel badly about hoping our team wins Celtic League title number 5?  Hell, no.

With Treviso set to visit the RDS on the final day of the season, the two teams below us on the table still to play each other and having healthy leads in both the “win” and “points difference” tiebreaker columns, victory in Belfast isn’t quite as important to us as it would be to Ulster, even when it comes to us securing a home semifinal.

HOWEVER...as far as I’m concerned, we have to treat this game at the Kingspan Stadium as though it were the final itself. 

Although we have done enough to get back into top spot for now, performances since the Six Nations haven’t been what they should be, particularly in attack.  And if Leinster want to compete in the playoffs, we need to keep changes in our lineups over the coming couple of weeks to an absolute minimum. 

I’d even go so far as to say we should field a strong team against Treviso in the final round to help with continuity.  Sure, it’s a risk on the injury front, but every rugby match is.  For me, the only focus for now has to be the Leinster that is playing this season, not resting players for tests in June, and not about blooding youngsters for seasons to come. We’ll need combinations all over the park getting to know each other ahead of the playoffs.

*****

Notice how I’m not referring to specific players in this post?  That’s for a reason.  My overall point is that while in the wider rugby sense the Champions Cup final and the June test series are the more important events coming up in the rugby calendar, here in Ireland we need to put those aside in our minds and focus on the provinces until the Guinness Pro12 2015/16 season is over.

My ideal end to the campaign would of course be Leinster beating Connacht at Murrayfield with Ulster getting to the final four and Munster making the top six.  Most fans outside the 12 eastern counties would probably want the same except for a reverse result in the final.  Either way is good for Irish rugby as a whole, but it will take some work and support to get there.  So let’s get it done it shall we.  JLP

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