Following the fortunes of Irish rugby has been one of the main preoccupations of my adult life. It’s a pastime that’s given me my fair share of pleasure and pain. Of course it was great to celebrate the successes: the Grand Slam, Six Nations titles, Triple Crowns, provincial glory in the Heineken Cup. But as any true Irish fan will tell you, we’ve also had plenty of disappointment and heartache. Of course we’re supposed to treat those twin impostors just the same, but sport doesn’t work like that. It’s a realm where the heart rules the head.
And there’s been a lot of gloom surrounding Irish rugby in the past eighteen months. Following Ireland’s underwhelming exit from the World Cup at the quarter-final stage, the state of Irish rugby seemed to take a permanent turn for the worse in the ensuing months when the Irish provinces struggled to get out of their Champions Cup groups. All of a sudden, the previously exalted Irish national model was being criticised and condemned by all and sundry. Irish rugby was being stifled by conservatism and inertia, or so the allegation went. Such was the all pervasive wealth of the French clubs, moreover, it was claimed that the Irish could no longer compete on anything approaching equal terms.
Well, fast forward a year and the outlook is rather different. Not only have we seen a resurgent and confident national side thanks to the wondrous, historic victory over the All Blacks, Irish clubs have not only survived but prospered in Europe this season. The turnaround has been quite remarkable indeed. And the crowds are starting to return following years of apathy and disillusionment with the fading success. Nowhere is this transformation more evident than Munster’s famous Thomond Park fortress. In recent times, the empty Thomond terraces spoke not only of the worst economic recession in living memory, but a more general malaise within Irish rugby. A generation of young rugby followers reared on success and who’d absolutely no memory of the bad old days struggled to adapt to changing realities. The boom had been great, but who needed the bust?
It’s for this reason and so many others, that the recent resurgence is to be welcomed. At last, Irish rugby followers have got smiles on their faces again and supporters are looking forward to the business end of the season with a degree of optimism not seen since the halcyon days of 2009 to 2012. The upturn in fortunes gives lie to the fallacy that the Irish system doesn’t work. Although imperfect and certainly riddled with flaws, the Irish system of central contracts affords a degree of protection and support that players can’t expect to experience elsewhere.
And our envied school and academy system consistently produces a conveyor belt of talent that the rich French clubs can only dream of enjoying. Just think: how good could we be if the supply lines were at last extended beyond the narrow, traditional rugby constituency? If you doubt the extent of talent within the Irish system, take a moment to ponder Joe Schmidt’s options in each position and you’ll realise the abundance that’s available. The last eighteen months have undoubtedly been a relatively tough time for the Irish game. Much soul searching has been done. And yet who were the first two teams to qualify from this season’s Champions’ Cup pools? Leinster and Munster. The demise of Irish rugby has been greatly exaggerated.