Anyone who has ever over-indulged on a night out knows that the extent of the hangover isn’t always directly related to the number of drinks downed before the head hits the pillow.
There is a strong argument that Ireland’s loss to New Zealand in the World Cup last month amounted to the most disappointing of all the nation’s quarter-final exits, but we can say here with a high degree of certainty that the sour taste will be rinsed away much quicker than was the case four years ago.
Lets remind ourselves of the season that unfolded in the wake of that traumatic loss to Argentina in Cardiff and, in particular, a European campaign that saw Munster, Leinster and Ulster all turfed out of the Champions Cup reckoning long before the pool stages were even close to done.
Munster were in a desperate state at the time. Their 27-7 loss to Stade Francais in January of 2016 was a humiliation and it confirmed their exit. It took a late, converted Conor Murray try to stop them being nilled for the first time in the competition and Anthony Foley was under desperate pressure to turn things around.
Alan Quinlan used words and phrases such as ‘embarrassing’, ‘borderline disgraceful’ and ‘bullied’ to describe the performance. He spoke on Sky Sports about how there was an absence of spirit, heart and passion. It’s as hard now as it was then to think of another criticism that could cut a Munster man to the bone in quite the same way.
Ulster fared better by beating an out-of-sorts Toulouse home and away before falling to the side in January. Leinster were the first to hit a dead end after losing all four of their first games before Christmas as Leo Cullen struggled to get to grips with a job that was dumped in his lap after the departure of Matt O’Connor.
With the English and the French sides creating a duopoly in the quarter-finals, the all-too-quick-to-judge among us were soon talking and writing about the end of one era of Irish success in Europe and the start of another which would see money talk and the provinces revert to the status of backwaters.
The glum mood persisted though Irish circles into the Six Nations where Joe Schmidt’s team struggled to find its feet until a pair of convincing late wins against Italy and Scotland lifted spirits. Then Connacht ensured a happy ending with that magnificent PRO12 title win in May.
Leinster already look to be unbackable for another league title and Andy Farrell’s promotion to the seat vacated by Joe Schmidt offers the prospect of a fresh start, if nothing else, as Ireland begin the process of building towards 2023 with a talent pool that is still producing. But Europe will dictate the mood music from here through to February.
Keep an eye and an ear open to some of the talk in England this week and there are suggestions that Premiership and Top 14 clubs have the greater talent pools and can cope better with the exertions of the World Cup than PRO14 outfits whose squad depth doesn’t run so deep.
Have they never heard of the Leinster academy?
Either way, it seems ludicrous to dismiss the Irish challenge.
Isa Nacewa didn’t buy into the narrative of sweeping generational change when Leinster’s loss to Toulon in Dublin four years ago confirmed their early departure from the competition. “The landscape is changing every year,” he said at the time. He’s right. This isn’t 2015 all over again.
His old club, for one, is is much better shape now than then. Cullen and Stuart Lancaster are well down the road with a Leinster team that has league and European honours to their credit in the years since and a heap of young and talented players have already filtered into the senior ranks as their Ireland stars return for duty.
Cullen didn’t add a single senior name of note to his roster in the off-season and yet the ongoing education of guys like Ronan Kelleher, Scott Penny and Max Deegan means that they continue to evolve.
An unbeaten pool run is not beyond them and with it a top seeding for the last eight.
Munster will hope that the addition to their coaching ranks of Graham Rowntree and Stephen Larkham can squeeze that extra 5% from a playing group sprinkled with top-shelf ability but some of which is starting to get on just a bit. It’s not as if they have been far away for some time now anyway.
Add in the strife surrounding Saracens and the suggestion that they may need to prioritise Premiership safety, Racing’s poor start to the season and the awfulness of the Ospreys, and the hackneyed ‘Pool of Death’ could yet be a springboard for a side that will surely improve as the new coaches and their ideas take root.
Dan McFarland has already bedded in as Ulster head coach after a first season that delivered a first quarter-final in five years and he added to the squad over the summer.
Clermont Auvergne will top Pool 3 but Ulster won’t fear Bath or Harlequins whose European pedigrees have long been poor.
Connacht face a stiffer test in Pool 5. Their resources are already stretched thin as the opening week approaches but there should still be plenty of reasons to cheer for Irish rugby by the time Christmas approaches and the interpros prompt another, but very different bout, of navel-gazing.