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The Stunning Decline of Irish Rugby under the Players that became Coaches

DUBLIN, IRELAND - MAY 02: Rocky Elsom of Leinster catches the ball in the lineout during the Heineken Cup semi final match between Munster and Leinster at Croke Park on May 2, 2009 in Dublin, Ireland. (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

The golden era of Irish rugby is over. This is a fact. The days when Munster and then Leinster ruled the European club game are fast receding into the dusty areas of memory, a place where the heroic feats of the provinces are discussed by starting with ‘remember when…’.

CARDIFF, WALES - MAY 21: Leinster receive the trophy after defeating Northampton in the Heineken Cup Final match between Leinster and Northampton Saints at the Millennium Stadium on May 21, 2011 in Cardiff, Wales. (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

The club landscape has changed. French and English club rugby saw to it that the European rugby championship format was altered to give them a fairer shot. Many in Ireland might argue that ‘fairer’ actually means ‘better’. While it is true that the changes to the European competition stretch beyond the name of the competition, from Heineken Cup to Champions Cups, is it really fair to say that the modifications are the sole reason for the decline in Ireland’s success on the European stage? Or, are we just looking for someone or something to blame as we run from the painful truth that the storied provinces of Munster and Leinster are just not that good anymore?

Irish rugby has seen a seismic shift in the last two to three years. With the desertion of success from the blue and red provinces, picking up the torch has been none other than the historical poor cousin of Irish rugby, Connacht. Under Pat Lam Connacht have become an equal partner at the dinner table of the IRFU. Where previously having to settle for the scraps left behind, Connacht now can legitimately claim a fair share of the spoils. Gone are the days where they were regarded as a second tier feeder club for the big three.

The success that Lam has brought did not come overnight. He had the courage to change the set up and the play book and it is a real credit to his squad for adapting to the changes. The results speak for themselves. Top of the Guinness Pro 12 table and set for a home semi-final for the first time, Connacht can now realistically lay claim as Ireland’s number one province.

LONDON, ENGLAND - NOVEMBER 04: Isa Nacewa (L) of Leinster, Denis Hurley of Munster and Rory Best (R) of Ulster pose with the trophy during the European Rugby launch for Pro12 and Premiership clubs at Twickenham Stoop on November 4, 2015 in London, England. (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

Ulster have been quiet during the transitional period that Irish rugby is undergoing. Steady and consistent throughout, Ulster have seen the arrival of Les Kiss, Joe Schmidt’s right hand man in the Ireland camp, and have continued to show positive progression as they too enter into the Pro12 post season.

The replacement of Munster and Leinster by Connacht and Ulster as Ireland’s top provinces has come not by accident but rather by the shrewd appointment of experience. Leinster and Munster have instead turned to sentiment.

Turning to legends of their respective provinces, the appointment of Leo Cullen in Dublin and Anthony Foley in Limerick is becoming increasingly clear to have been appointments made by the heart and not the head. While both have spent time as assistant coaches following the conclusion of their playing careers, neither has spent any time away from the clubs where they made their names as players.

CLERMONT-FERRAND, FRANCE - DECEMBER 14: Anthony Foley, head coach of Munster looks on during the European Rugby Champions Cup pool one match between ASM Clermont Auvergne and Munster at Stade Marcel Michelin on December 14, 2014 in Clermont-Ferrand, France. (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

While Leinster continue to cling onto the coat tails of Connacht due to the strength and depth of their squad, Munster have been cut loose like dead weight. With no Pro 12 post season to look forward to and a glimmer of hope remaining for European qualification, second tier qualification, Munster have finally recognised that rewarding Foley with a 12 month contract extension in February was perhaps a little short sighted.

The penny has finally dropped that Munster are in crisis and only this week saw the appoinment of former manager of South Africa’s performance teams, Johan ‘Rassie’ Erasmus as Munster’s new Director of Rugby. While Foley was quick to welcome the appointment, it is clear that the Director of Rugby role is an attempt by Munster to cover up the cracks in the Munster back room.

To watch the great provinces of Munster and Leinster crumble and fall is incomfortable to watch but in truth, it must be said that there is an element of blame that rightly rests at the feet of club management.

Turning to ‘fan favourites’ rather than experience in times of transition is never a smart move, something once again proven by the shambles at Munster.

Ireland rugby must learn from this error in judgement and right the ship. Failure to so will only condemn the national side to years of mediocrity. With a world cup three years away, now is the time to make the uncomfortable but necessary decision to cast aside the sentiment and bring in some experience and quality at the old greats.

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Author: The PA Team

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