Ireland’s four provinces are facing an almost impossible task in their respective bids to push beyond the pool stages of the Champions Cup, never mind win it.
Former Leinster and Ireland centre Gordon D’Arcy delivered that damning and depressing verdict yesterday, two weeks into the fledgling Guinness PRO12 season, and with the opening round of European games a month distant.
D’Arcy warned a rise in general standards across the board in the PRO12, as well as a renewed commitment by the IRFU to recruit top-class foreign talent, is crucial if Irish sides hope of making a dent on the continental stage again.
It is an assessment that chimes with recent trends.
Leinster claimed Ireland’s fifth European title in seven seasons in 2012 but no province has made the decider since and the numbers of contenders from the Celtic nations has dwindled alarmingly since the Heineken Cup gave way to the Champions Cup.
The success of the French and English clubs in wresting control of the European competitions from the unions, combined with the subsequent restructuring and growth in finances in those two countries, has ushered in this disturbing new landscape.
It is now five seasons since Scotland or Wales was represented in the knockout stages of the main European competition and not one PRO12 side made the quarter-finals last season for the first time.
“It is nearly impossible to get out of your group now,” said D’Arcy. “Most of these groups could be over before Christmas. The days of fighting until the last round, to my mind, are largely gone. They have made it largely impossible to qualify. There was a serious turn around in the power struggle. The English and the French wanted more control over it, which is exactly what they have got, but it is almost impossible for the Irish and the Scottish and the Welsh teams to deal with the power game of the England and the French teams.
“The budgets, the size of the squads – the goalposts have changed dramatically. The English and the French teams have gotten bigger and wealthier and the Celtic sides have largely stood still.
“It is now 25%-30% more difficult to qualify from your own group.”
In 2006 he was part of the Leinster side that produced a still-famous victory away to Toulouse. This was when Guy Noves’ side was still the pre-eminent club in Europe but one which was very much backboned by a strong French production line. Fast forward to the tail end of his career and D’Arcy was facing a Toulon side with just four players eligible to play for ‘Les Bleus’. Which is one of the reasons why he believes the provinces should be helped attract top-shelf talent of their own.
Munster leaned on the likes of Trevor Halsted and Doug Howlett in capturing Heineken Cups, Leinster had Rocky Elsom and Isa Nacewa setting standards when they claimed the first of their in 2009 and yet only Charles Piutai with Ulster can compare to those talents. Not just that but Ulster have been ordered to release Ruan Pienaar, the veteran South African scrum-half at the season’s end despite an absence of any outstanding young nine to replace him.
“All the provinces need someone of that calibre if we are going to compete. The one thing we have the French sides don’t is that winning culture and ethic and the sum of your parts being greater, but you do need one or two special parts in that as well.”
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