Ireland are the Six Nations champions. Three Irish provinces, all former European champions, are about to contest the Heineken Cup quarter finals. Five out of the last eight Heineken Cup winners have been from Ireland. This would suggest that the outlook for Irish rugby looks incredibly strong. However, with European rugby as we know it set for big changes next season will the Irish provinces be able to continue competing under the pressure of success that they now face?
The proposed new competition due to get underway next season would only guarantee one Irish province an automatic place in the twenty team tournament. The top seeded Irish, Welsh, Scottish and Italian teams would automatically qualify, with the other three Celtic League places going to the next highest placed teams, regardless of their nationality. England and France are due to be allocated thirteen qualifying places between them.
Should this proposed system go ahead it would mean that every league game will become a must win encounter, with every point gained being an important point. Strength in depth for the Irish provinces will be crucial as will consistency in performance. The times when the Irish international players are away from the provinces will become pivotal, with players such as Ruan Pienaar, Jimmy Gopperth and CJ Stander having to prove their worth.
The worry would be that if games become more competitive and more attritional will the current squads be strong enough to compete, especially when you include a European competition compromised of the best and strongest of the richer English and French teams.
It is quite feasible that a similar situation to that of the football leagues in Europe will develop, where the richest and more famous clubs will create a gap that the less successful clubs cannot close. Should this happen will the Irish provinces be able to attract the top players? With such a small player base to pick from can we sustain four or even three consistently strong provincial squads capable of competing successfully in both Europe and the Celtic League?
As things stand the Irish teams have adapted perfectly to the current system and have learned to peak at the business end of the season. By changing the qualifying process for Europe and making position in the Celtic League more of a priority how will the Irish provinces react? Will there be a call for more foreign players? Bigger budgets? How can the Irish teams entice players to come and play for them rather than the big European clubs like Toulouse, Clermont or even Saracens? The other Celtic teams must be thinking along similar lines.
Until details of the proposed new competition are actually announced we can only surmise as to how it will affect the Irish teams. Change is definitely in the air, and not in the best interest of the Irish provinces.
They may be on the crest of a wave now, but next season will be challenging to say the least.
PJ Dinan, Pundit Arena.