Northampton’s stunning 18-9 victory over Leinster last weekend shows a glimpse into the future without the English clubs, writes Dominic Evans.
The Heineken Cup as we know will be very different next year. Mark McCafferty, CEO of Premiership Rugby, has stated the intentions of the English clubs are “pursuing other options”. While much has been written on how the English sides and national side will be affected, the void left could damage Ireland in the forthcoming Rugby World Cup in 2015. It is a problem the IRFU should look to tackle.
The passion of the matches between these two nations in this competition has provided many classic encounters. From the controversial 2002 final between Leicester and Munster which saw Neil Back knock the ball from Peter Stringer’s hand to give possession back to his side and ultimately win the cup. To Leinster’s Lazarus-esque second half comeback against Northampton to win 33-22, after losing 22-6 at half time.
More importantly from the point of view of the Irish national team is the incredibly likely void of the English sides in next year’s Heineken Cup. The lack of high intensity matches may undercook Ireland in preparation for the Rugby World Cup in just under two years. The competition is as close to an international match as possible, many argue it can even surpass.
Leinster were shown a harsh lesson last weekend. Inconsistency is a great plague to the national side, the provinces are beginning to possess the similar quality. During the Autumn Internationals this year Ireland had a non-existent performance against Australia, then backed-up by arguably the greatest effort by an Irish side ever a week later against New Zealand. Nevertheless it should be considered Joe Schmidt may create a culture in time within in the team to stop the constant inconsistency.
On an individual level, the world class players the country possesses may be under-cooked by 2015. Ireland’s number 1 fly-half is plying his trade at Racing Metro 92. A team which will inevitably be knocked out of the tournament in the New Year and is misfiring as a team. The form of Sexton may see a considerable dip come world cup time and then will be Ireland be reliant on the inexperienced Paddy Jackson or Ian Madigan.
Yet it is not beyond Racing in the next few months to start playing like a team and for Sexton to near his best form but not completely because of less high competitiveness matches. Then consider Ireland’s poor form in the knockout stages of every world cup, Ireland need a world class fly-half to reach his full potential. Sexton is an isolated case, for the moment. The younger players also thrive on the competition. As Ireland has some ageing stars, Paul O Connell and Brian O Driscoll to name two, the youth players need this competition just as much.
The French sides can offer massive challenges away for the Irish players however the away form of the top 14 teams is generally poor. Just look at Munster’s 36-8 home win over Perpignan round 3. You never know which French side will turn up seems to be the general consensus amongst the British and Irish Isles.
On a more alarming note, Ian Ritchie, Chief Executive Officer of the RFU, has gone one step further and put doubt over the future of the Six Nations if a resolution isn’t solved. He told the Guardian’s Paul Rees, “You do not want to have a vacuum next season for teams not involved in the Heineken Cup to fill which is why we have to get this resolved now. If it affects the Six Nations, we are all in trouble.”
An absence of the Aviva Premiership in next year’s Heineken Cup is not disastrous. The Irish players will still be tested, but for a world cup in 2015 it is not perfect.
Pundit Arena, Dominic Evans.