BRENDAN O'BRIEN: Provinces find themselves at crossroads on and off the rugby pitch

It is hard to avoid the sense that Ireland’s rugby provinces now find themselves at a crossroads, suggests Brendan O'Brien

Neither Anthony Foley nor Tommy O’Donnell were going to be hostages to fortune late on Saturday night. 

Job done on the field, the Munster coach and flanker navigated their way through post-match media duties on-message. Foley banged on about Scarlets next weekend, O’Donnell cautioned that no trophies were handed out in October.

All that is true but none of it changes the fact that, though there are a good eight months still to be negotiated, the biggest occasion the Guinness Pro12 has to offer this season is already behind us.

Leinster-Munster at the Aviva is, in many ways, the high point of the competition’s season: two of it’s best teams playing at the best ground in front of the biggest attendance and this one came with added bells and whistles thanks to Sky TV.

One visiting Welsh rugby journalist, Simon Thomas, tweeted in what must have been envious admiration at the size of the crowd — and yet the 43,817 attendance was the lowest at this derby at the new stadium in five years. It was, in fact, the smallest gathering for any of Leinster’s games at the plush new joint in Ballsbridge in either domestic or European action since they first started renting the place out back in the autumn of 2010.

It is not an isolated trend. Munster have also seen interest dwindle. Not just for your average Pro12 run-out, but even for this reverse fixture, with the numbers at Thomond Park for Leinster visits dropping by almost 6,000 in the last half-dozen seasons.

That’s what made the events of two days ago so important.

With accommodation as large as the Aviva’s, the scope to cater for the floating voters is considerably larger than at any other time of the season and that was apparent in the plethora of accents and babyish faces wandering through the ground.

All too often, this class of customer has left disenchanted by what they have witnessed and last year’s meeting of blue and red at the Aviva was testament to that with a succession of lengthy stoppages and poor rugby countered by just a single try.

Eight of the 11 meetings prior to this latest had, in fact, produced either one try or none at all. So, imperfect as some of the play was this time, the ripple effect in terms of customer relations will have been considerable.

Or, at least, the participants will hope so.

Leinster may not be the force that claimed three Heineken Cups in four years but their population base and media market in the capital, allied to their still unsullied status as star pupil in the Pro12, should keep the turnstiles ticking over for now.

Munster’s need, economically, was much the greater. Seven seasons and counting since their last European success and four since they last lifted what was then the Magners League title, the province had real need of a win of this calibre.

Proactive though they have been in attempting to improve the fan experience, there is no substitute for success and Thomond Park was barely over half-full for their opening two home games, against Edinburgh and Ospreys.

“The All-Ireland and stuff were factors,” said O’Donnell. “If you come and play a boring game then the crowd isn’t interested. They want to see breaks, they want to see tries and we need to do that. We need to do more of what we did tonight and really get them on our side. That’s the easiest way to do it.”

The fact is that Munster are still a work in progress under Foley while Leinster are struggling to rediscover the mojo they flaunted under Joe Schmidt.

Add in an Ulster team whose best shot at silverware seems to be behind them for now with a new coach to come and some key vets just gone and that leaves a buoyant Connacht as the only province gathering speed off a curve.

The landscape in Irish rugby has changed radically. Where once the provinces had led and the national team lagged, the opposite is now the case and the shifting ground is all the less steady given the disappearance of the Heineken Cup.

All in all, it is hard to avoid the sense that Ireland’s provinces now find themselves at a crossroads.


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