As a barometer of how quickly things change in professional rugby, events over a seven-day period between April 30 and May 6 highlighted a worrying trend for Irish rugby.
First out of the blocks, Ulster meekly surrendered a 17-6 half-time lead in their Challenge Cup semi-final defeat to Leicester, having been totally dominant to that point. The Tigers, sixth in the Premiership, are nowhere near the side that once dominated English and European rugby.
Two day later, Leinster were comprehensively outplayed in their Heineken Champions Cup semi-final against an emerging La Rochelle side emulating many of the traits that enabled Saracens to defeat Leinster in the same tournament in the 2019 decider and 2020 quarter-final.
That painful defeat was a factor when eight Irish players, the same number as Scotland, were announced four days later in Warren Gatland’s 37-man Lions squad to tour South Africa. While the likes of Johnny Sexton, James Ryan, and Garry Ringrose all have legitimate claims for feeling hard done by, for a variety of reasons, their omissions were not a shock.
The bottom line is that, compared to 2018 when Ireland won a Grand Slam, a series victory in Australia over the Wallabies and defeated New Zealand in Dublin, the fortunes of the national side have taken a distinct backwards step.
Losing to Japan at the pool stage of the 2019 World Cup was a low point from which we have struggled to recover.
Running parallel with the international successes of 2018, Leinster completed a highly impressive double, winning the Guinness PRO14 along with the Heineken Champions Cup, defeating Racing 92 in a memorable final in Bilbao.
Irish rugby was the talk of the game worldwide. Our professional model was second to none and our consistency on the pitch, at both levels, highly impressive. With the World Cup looming, the likes of New Zealand, South Africa, and England viewed us as a serious threat and looked at ways to negate our key strengths.
Having defeated the All Blacks twice between 2016 and 2018, New Zealand’s 46-14 demolition of Ireland in Tokyo at the quarter-final stage of the World Cup, offered a salutary lesson on how we had failed to evolve in the 15 months leading into the tournament.
Part of the problem is that not only had Ireland failed to tweak their game on the field to keep the opposition on their toes in the lead in to Japan, but there has been an even greater failure to reassess our approach off the field since.
A well-constructed professional model that underpinned the running of our provincial and national sides, for well over a decade, peaked in 2018 and is now in need of revision.
The consistency with which our provinces performed in Europe between 2006 and 2018 also lifted the international ship. Our players were not only exposed on a regular basis to the best international talent from the home countries and France but also to a wealth of proven Springboks, All Blacks, and Wallabies plying their trade in Europe.
The lessons were clear. We could compete with the best of them. When it came to playing against the same talent on the international stage, there wasn’t a hint of an interiority complex, more a case of “bring it on”.
To a point, that still exists but, on both fronts, when Irish sides are exposed to teams with more physicality, especially up front, we struggle to cope.
The first problem is we don’t face that challenge often enough. The second, especially in the Guinness PRO14, is more often than not, that situation is reversed with our provinces invariably the ones doing the bullying and winning all the collisions.
That is why the introduction of the four top South African teams to the newly-formed PRO16 can’t come soon enough. With all four now facing the Lions in the revised tour schedule, we will get a glimpse of what our provinces will face from next season. On first viewing in the Rainbow Cup, they haven’t been overly impressive but what they all possess is massive power and size in their forward units. Finding a way to deal with that level of physicality on a more regular basis in our domestic league is exactly what we need right now.
However, it will be of no benefit to us unless our top players, especially up front, are exposed to all those contests against the South Africans on a regular basis. Right now, our front-line players are being used far too sparingly in the PRO14.
The model where the playing minutes of the Irish players is forensically monitored and managed contributed hugely to some of our successes in the past but, on too many occasions recently, many of our front liners have been left undercooked going into top level contests.
That needs to change. What works for some players doesn’t work for all. Some of our international stars barely feature on the domestic front. The provinces need a greater say. It’s no state secret that Leinster’s relationship with the IRFU’s director of rugby and chief decision maker David Nucifora has been poor for a long time. That is not a healthy situation.
While Munster have received a lot of support from Nucifora in allowing World Cup-winning Springboks RG Snyman and Damien De Allende join their ranks, Leinster have become victims of their own success. With their academy production line in full swing, they are awash with talent.
The problem is their roster, with 59 different players featuring in PRO14 action to date this season, is full of similar players at a similar standard, all being generated from the same schools template. The same model also applies in Munster and Ulster.
A lot of these players completely bypass the club system. The IRFU has lost touch with its clubs and has all but cut them off as a mechanism for producing and developing talent. That is a mistake that will come back to haunt Irish rugby in the not-too-distant future.
With Wallaby Scott Fardy retiring, having proved an excellent acquisition, Leinster should be granted permission to source a bruising international quality second row, despite the presence of James Ryan, Devin Toner, and Ryan Baird in their ranks. Ryan and Baird are two superb athletes but to go all the way in Europe, Leinster are badly in need of an Eben Etzebeth type to complement the two Irish locks.
If I was Leo Cullen, I’d do everything possible to prise Etzebeth away from Toulon. Yes, there would be issues in having to release him for Springbok duty but it’s not as if Cullen isn’t used to that scenario and the benefits far outweigh the negatives. Playing regularly alongside a player of Etzebeth’s stature would not only help Leinster’s cause in Europe but would also make Ryan and Baird better players.
The big question is whether Nucifora would sanction such an acquisition.
Another issue is whether he should have that level of autonomy. When Toulouse, Saracens, or Exeter Chiefs want to sign a top-class international, there is no requirement whatsoever on them to consult with the RFU or the FFR.
What isn’t in dispute is that our game, on both fronts, has taken a step backwards over the last three years.
While the Welsh and Scottish districts would kill for the level of consistency our provinces have shown domestically and in Europe, we have to examine why our standards have fallen when it comes to closing out big games against the top opponents for province and country.
The report into the failings of the national side at the 2019 World Cup highlighted four key issues.
Specific to that campaign was a lack of focus on the hosts Japan and a failure to develop the style of play in the year leading into the tournament.
Also identified as issues were psychological shortcomings, which I think still need to be addressed, coupled with a need to continue developing the individual skill sets of the players. While there is evidence to suggest that the decision-making and passing skills of our forwards have improved, our players still don’t look quite as comfortable on the ball as our French counterparts.
Perhaps we were spoiled by the success enjoyed from 2006 to 2018. There was always the likelihood that once the French got themselves organised on the club and international front, which is exactly what has happened, we would slip down the pecking order.
Right now Irish rugby is at a crossroads. Nucifora and his cohorts need to don their thinking caps once again.