Ireland has experienced a golden generation of rugby players but yet the golden trophy has remained elusive. Certainly they have put the early days of professional rugby behind them where all worthwhile silverware eluded them. Multiple triple crowns, a grand slam and the retention of the six nations champions spot for two years on the hop now have made the modern Irish team as a force to be reckoned with in World Rugby.
Behind this national team the professional club game has thrived, Munster led the way with two Heineken Cups and Leinster later topped this with three of their own. Ulster has become a strong team that challenge for silverware at European and Pro12 level. Connacht has begun to deliver consistent performances, only narrowly missing out on a Champions Cup place for this coming season.
Yet despite this progress a troubling future lies ahead for Irish clubs. Munster have been rebuilding as a team now for 3 consecutive seasons with little progress to show. A total of eleven players are departing the province this season, including the talisman that is Paul O’Connell and younger talent in the guise of JJ Hanrahan. The Province just hasn’t been the same force it once was since its departure from the Heineken Cup in the group stage of the 2010/11 competition.
Several semi-final appearances have been made since but with the team considered a significant underdog and performances not materialising on the day. The magical spell that allowed the team once to produce miracles seems now to have been broken. Poor seeding can be blamed for this season’s failure to go beyond the group stage yet their home loss against Clermont was very damming of a team that once had a stellar home record at European level.
Leinster in most recent season has begun to struggle to produce performances. The departure of Brain O’Driscoll has left their centre partnership a shadow of what it once was and injuries to key players has left their pack weakened. Many of the hopes for this province have been pinned on the return of Jonathan Sexton to the out half position next season. But if his time at Racing Metro is anything to go by he cannot alone win the club trophies, rugby remains a team game. Worrying signs also include the premature departure of Matt O’Connor, this season’s poor performance was not his fault alone and placing blame on him merely covers up the cracks in a team that struggled in the Pro12 this year.
While Ulster has become a team to be reckoned with they never pushed on from their 2011/12 appearance in the Heineken Cup final. Struggling to make it beyond the quarter-final stages and not making it beyond the group in this most recent season. Trouble in the Ulster camp early this season and an inconsistency in the province’s head coaching position haven’t helped. Hopes that Ulster would push on to win silverware and become a force in European rugby are now fading
Connaught has, as previously mentioned, made significant leaps forward as a team. Their consistency of performance has grown and they are no longer the walk over they might have once been. Tastes of European Rugby have given the team a strong following with their stadium now regularly packed out for big games. The team requires investment though to push to the next level. The province has seen too many near misses for qualification to bigger and better tournaments, many times now they have been pipped at the post in big games.
The IRFU haven’t helped by allowing key players such as Ian Keatley, Sean Cronin and Mike McCarthy to be poached by other Irish teams at key points in the team’s development. The import of these players from Connaught has also meant that the other Irish clubs haven’t produced their own talent in some key positions. A change in attitude with respect to Connaught and some additional investment would push them over the line, solidifying their position as a strong 4th Irish team.
When we have two clubs heading into seasons of squad rebuilding and two other teams struggling to really push on to the next level the future supply of players from the clubs to the Irish national team becomes uncertain. When injuries are taken into account we are most definitely in a precarious position. The effect of the likes of O’Connell, Sexton or Murray being out would be devastating to the national team as there are no obvious successors arriving in the near future. In addition, if we ask ourselves whom a Lions XV would consist of after this season we may see a worrying lack of Irish players in the team compared with other years. It draws the conclusion that this coming competition may be the last chance for this golden generation of Irish players to win a world cup.