Imagine for a moment that it is November 15, 2017 again only the day diverts down a different path. Rugby’s movers and shakers are wedged into a conference room in the Royal Garden Hotel in South Kensington when Bill Beaumont, like some luvvie actor on stage at the Oscars, unfolds his piece of paper and the word ‘IRELAND’ is uttered.
Philip Browne dispenses with decades of reserve by embracing Dick Spring in a bear hug, Philip Orr has Brian O’Driscoll in a joyous head lock and Shane Ross is fumbling in his pocket for his phone, his mind already working overtime on the composition of the Twitter message and selfie that will place him front and centre on this auspicious day.
Yep, the All Blacks are coming to Castlebar!
We know now how distant that dream actually was. Ireland were eliminated after the first round of votes three years ago when Browne intimated that the parameters set down were designed to keep small countries on the outside looking in rather than the other way around.
But imagine, in the context of what we saw late last year in Japan, had Ireland gone and won those hosting rights.
Here we are still scarred by the national team’s latest disappointment at a World Cup. So imagine how much deeper the introspection, and how much more intense the angst, would be right now if we were facing the prospect of having to right all those previous wrongs at a 2023 tournament being played here in our own back yard.
Would everything change at this point and change utterly?
Would Andy Farrell’s assignment be different from the one presented to him now?
Would the new head coach be given carte blanche for the next year or two in terms of results and allowed the freedom to ape Fabien Galthie who felt empowered to name 19 greenhorns in his French squad?
Would he, heck.
Not everyone has been sated by Farrell’s first stab at team selection this week. Not dramatic enough, apparently.
Five personnel changes and one positional have been made from the XV that caved to the All Blacks in Tokyo.
Add in the alterations to the coaching staff and the switch of training bases from Carton House to Abbotstown and there has clearly been plenty of work done under the hood regardless of where you stand on Murray v Cooney.
Remember, too, the Six Nations is no vehicle for revolution. This is a tournament that only introduced the notion of bonus points three years ago. An ecosystem that didn’t adapt to the realities of Italy’s growth and potential until it was too late for the Azzurri’s best side and a forum that still refuses to countenance opening the doors of their exclusive club to any further new members.
This is a tournament that sits somewhere between the intimate and the incestuous.
“The championship is incredibly special,” said Joe Schmidt before his final Six Nations game, against Wales.
“It is intense, incredibly intense and you come up against players that you know well. Our players, some of them are good friends with their opponents. They’ve played club footy together or they’ve played on the Lions together.
"And so, as I said before this Six Nations, if we can get into the top two teams in the Six Nations, I think anyone who does that is doing a good job.”
That remains the goal for Farrell. The national team is the cash cow for Irish rugby and the Six Nations is the trough from which it sources most of its sustenance. Figures published by The Daily Express last year claimed that the minimum the IRFU makes from the annual gig is €18m.
The ceiling figure shifts upwards to roughly €22m in the event that they would claim a Grand Slam.
A difference of €4m may not sound like a whole pile of beans in a sporting world where the average annual salary for a single player in football’s Premier League is over three-quarters that amount.
It’s a significant difference in a sport where the margins are far keener and the provincial and club games continue to demand such financial support.
Schmidt was never less than rigid in his insistence that the Six Nations was of absolute prime importance to the IRFU all through his six years and more in charge.
It was a belief evidenced by his team’s 71% win ratio across that time and a record of just one home defeat, to England last February, in his 15 home games.
All of which made it more incongruous to read the lines in his book ‘Ordinary Joe’ claiming he hadn’t prioritised the 2019 Six Nations in the same way as his previous five.
Farrell was on deck at that time so he’ll have noted his old skipper’s bum steers as well as the manner in which he sailed the good ship through choppy waters for so long before that.
Get landed on the rocks this far out from 2023 and someone else would likely be at the wheel come the 2023 World Cup.
- Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @byBrendanOBrien
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