Sometimes it helps to take all the guesswork out of who should be playing for Ireland by actually going hard at each other.
Agen are in a brutal run of fixtures in the French Top 14. La Rochelle beat them 40-8 at our place last Sunday and that came on the back of losses to Clermont, Toulouse and leaders Bordeaux-Begles.
Things aren’t getting easier either — tomorrow they are at home to Lyon, who along with Bordeaux-Begles, are striding well clear of the pack at the summit of the Top 14 table. Guaranteed, though, there’ll be 14,000 at the Stade Armandie for the visit of Lyon.
Being a Top 14 club is quite a thing for a town like Agen, and its 30,000 souls. To lose that status would rip the heart out of the town, emotionally and economically.
At the moment they are one point above dead last in the Top 14, and the team beneath them is Stade Francais, who you’d expect to get their act together in the second half of the campaign.
The bottom side takes the dreaded drop — the second last team plays the runner up in the Pro D2.
I don’t think Irish rugby people get relegation and its consequences, certainly the emotional and psychological side of the subject, how it can get into your gut. It’s only when I moved from Ireland to France that I really began to grasp it.
Towns like Agen, Pau and Brive, the impact to their self-esteem is as significant as the damage relegation does to the local economy, right down to how many rolls the local boulangerie sells. He’ll tell ya.
Relegation affects thousands of people. Folk who give out about the ‘standard’ of the Top 14 are generally looking in from afar and from leagues with no relegation or repercussion for failure.
The Top 14 is a results-driven league, and everything that such entails. There’s little by way of a results imperative in the Pro14, for instance. It’s about performance and getting your minutes in but over here, people would bite your arm off for a 6-3 win.
Those type of victories are priceless. They stave off the spectre of relegation in the dressing room, in the club, in the town. It’s livelihood. La Rochelle has a population of around 75,000, and we’ve been sold out every home game for half a dozen years.
The rugby club is part of the fabric of the community, it’s an economic driver and the players understand the responsibility that comes with that.
We have two Champions Cup games remaining in January, but the benefits we derive from them will be employed for crucial Top 14 games. That’s hard for anyone at home in Ireland, and Munster, to understand.
In Ireland, players get ready for test games by playing European Cup six times a season.
In England and France, the players play in hugely competitive domestic leagues every week, then they attack Europe and represent their country.
Which system is better?
There’s 100 years of history in the French top flight, and ask anyone here whether they want to win that or the European Cup, and they will choose the ‘Bouclier’.
Much of this is based on heritage and tradition and having a league that’s valued — I’m neither English nor French but I can see the attraction of their system.
You win a Top 14 or a Premiership and you’ve proper earned it. Liverpool fans might appreciate what I mean. Their appetite to prevail in the grind of the Premier League is voracious.
There was a record crowd at Exeter’s Sandy Park of 13,593 for last Sunday’s win over Saracens. Both sides were fully locked and loaded, in stark contrast to the 26,000 spectators who sold out Thomond Park the previous night only to be served a Christmas selection box of sorts.
Maybe after what happened at the World Cup, it might be better for Irish players to get tested in a hostile environment more often?
Leinster down in Limerick, we could have had Johnny Sexton or Robbie Henshaw getting gut-checked in front of a hostile crowd, 20,000-plus hoping they screw up every time they are near the ball. That’s surely good for the development of a player..
Everything has to be thrown up on the table in Irish rugby for a proper re-evaluation. What our players get selected for, what we compete in, how we periodise our campaigns and cycles.
The bulk of the elite Irish group generally does well in the Six Nations but we have flopped badly at two successive World Cups and never progressed beyond the quarter finals. That’s as instructive as it is embarrassing.
Of course, managing minutes is important but it’s not the point here. Are coaches really losing sleep about losing Pro14 games?
Don’t think so. Ulster and Leinster played out a ‘you-score-then-we-score’ game before Christmas that produced nearly 100 points at a time of the year and in conditions when defences are supposed to have the upper hand.
How good is that for Irish rugby? Seriously.
For everyone’s benefit, a full metal jacket Leinster v Munster is a prerequisite in Irish rugby and for Irish rugby. It’s not as if the players are over-burdened with pressure fixtures or dealing with the threat of relegation.
That was always the way in the pre-Joe Schmidt days, then it became ‘Team Ireland’, with the boys getting pally in Carton House. Sometimes it helps to take all the guesswork out of who should be playing for Ireland by actually going hard at each other.
It was always the way once upon a time.
The attendance at Thomond shows how popular and important the fixture is in the eyes of the sport’s grassroots. No matter who you are, the pressure of these games gets to you in different ways and outside test matches, creating that environment isn’t easy.
Look at a James Ryan, a future Ireland captain. How often has he experienced a truly hostile crowd in his face? He surely realises that environment will only aid his development. Let’s see how these players react to that so when they go to Twickenham or Cardiff, it gives them a better chance to perform.
We cannot be letting these opportunities pass because in a league without the pressure of relegation, there are only so many pinch points Irish players have to deal with.
What happens in England and France is there are no rest weekends while in Ireland, they won’t admit it, but when the PRO14 comes around, the provinces can change their selections as they like without fear of the repercussions or the league table.
The way squads are nowadays, you’ve nearly 40 professionals anyway but there are no such luxuries in France or England, where you have to keep an eye on your domestic position and league.
At the moment Leicester are in a perilous position in the Gallaghers Premiership, one place above Saracens and their 35-point deduction. Looking over their shoulders too are other heavyweights like Wasps and Harlequins.
Almost on cue, there’s a conversation about the merits of scrapping relegation in the Premiership. One wonders whether the hue and cry would be as loud if it was Worcester looking to avoid the trap door?
The fact is that, however merciless, relegation works in terms of stirring some cut and thrust into rugby’s domestic leagues.
Ireland does not have that option for its provinces — why would the English clubs ever entertain a top tier B&I league when their own product is working well? — which is why it cannot afford to be playing Munster v Leinster with half the internationals sitting on their asses.
The World Cup is the competition that ultimately counts and, for sure, Ireland’s players need to be prepped differently to be given the best possible chance every four years. This idea of beating New Zealand and being No 1 in the world is all great if you back it up at a World Cup.
But Andy Farrell might just be wondering whether he can afford not to be pitting his best players against each other a couple of times a season.
Just before Christmas, La Rochelle went the 100 miles down the road to Bordeaux-Begles looking for our first away win in the Top 14 this season. It was a proper game.
We gave them a 12-0 start before we stopped looking at them and discovered they had two arms and two legs just like us. Away from home, you have to be so efficient, especially in the early stages when calls tend to go with the hosts.
Ultimately, we came up shy 20-15 to the leaders. Tomorrow we visit Pau, who are desperate to keep their season alive and in the frame for top six.
It’s another challenge,another gut-check, another pressure point for both sets of players.
The sort of game where you need to be made of the right stuff.