BRENDAN O'BRIEN: Why we should be thankful for this weekend in the 2017 Champions Cup

Let’s park logic and bookmakers’ predictions for a moment and allow ourselves the luxury of contemplating a scenario come tea-time on Sunday whereby both Munster and Leinster are confirmed as finalists for the 2017 Champions Cup.

 

The irony, were it to come about, should be lost on no-one. It’s close to five years since the English Premiership and Top 14 clubs announced their intention to withdraw from the Heineken and Challenge Cup competitions come 2014. 

That they did it just a month on from a final at Twickenham that featured two Irish sides, Leinster and Ulster, and ended with a fourth title for the provinces in five years was no coincidence. 

Clubs on both sides of the English Channel had already begun to stockpile multinational arsenals made up of some of the world’s finest players and here they were sidelined by a parochial Paddys’ affair at HQ. 

It was the type of scene that was never going to go unchallenged in the boardrooms. The two years that followed the inauguration of the Champions Cup proved torturous for the Irish, and the PRO12 in general. 

The fear was real that the green tint to the tournament would never be so prominent again. So, let’s be thankful this weekend.

Whatever transpires in Dublin and Lyon, variety has been returned to the European Cup. 

In the place of the mid-tier and off-Broadway Madejski Stadium and Nottingham’s City Ground this time last year we have the significantly more sizeable Aviva Stadium and the faded but fabled Stade de Gerland.

The crowd in Ballsbridge will in itself surpass the combined 39,000 or so who ventured along to the two English venues for the pair of last-four encounters 12 months ago.

If the bookies are right — again — we may still have to stand aside and watch an Anglo-French carve-up come the final but the turnaround in fortunes experienced by Munster and Leinster are reflective of the fact the underlying system in Ireland remains fit for purpose. And that it can take little enough to return the provinces to former glories. 

The self-contained nature of the Irish operations continue to marvel, largely homogenised affairs that fly in the face of a modern sport that rewards the embrace of globalisation at the elite levels. 

Players such as Trevor Halstead and Rocky Elsom have earned legendary status for the parts played in bringing titles to Munster and Leinster but the roll call of non-Irish, or non-Irish qualified, players who have earned European Cup medals with the provinces across 18 seasons and six successes sits at a measly 11. 

Out of 154 squad places. That’s just over 7%. It’s a paltry figure made up of one Italian, two Australians, three Kiwis, three South Africans, a Fijian international and the Cook Islands’ most famous export.

Others, including Isaac Boss, Jeremy Manning, Richardt Strauss, Nathan White, and Andy Ward, were naturalised Irishmen by the time they claimed their medals. 

An inexact science, we know, but you get the picture. And the French and English experiences? When Toulouse won the first European Cup 21 years ago the name of Ugo Mola stood out in stark contrast against the long list of Gallic monikers.

Not only was that side replete with Frenchmen it was one adorned with a heavy sprinkling of men born in the city. The Toulouse teams that claimed further success through the next decade would always lean heavily on indigenous talent. 

The squad Munster bettered in Cardiff in 2008 had 14 French players and eight foreigners. Biarritz, at the same venue two years earlier, brought just five imports. By 2013 all had changed utterly. 

The Toulon squad that claimed the first of a three-in-a-row at the Aviva Stadium contained 15 non-natives and the side they beat, Clermont Auvergne, became the most multi-cultural finalist ever with 11 nationalities represented in their 23. 

Those sides, as well as Racing 92 and Saracens, have continued that League of Nations theme in the years since. Not just two semi-finals this weekend, then, but one philosophy against another.

Oh, and those 11 non-Irishmen to win it with the provinces? Here you go... Italian: Federico Pucciarello (2006); Australians: Rocky Elsom (2009), Chris Whitaker (2009); New Zealanders: Doug Howlett (2008), Rua Tipoki (2008) and Brad Thorn (2012); South Africans: Trevor Halstead (2006), Shaun Payne (2006) and Heinke van der Merwe (2011, 2012); Fijian: Isa Nacewa (2009, 2011, 2012); Cook Islander: Stan Wright (2009, 2011).

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