Monday, January 24, 2011

Connacht Rugby Has No Future - Set the Cinderella Province Free

Munster’s destruction at the hands of Toulon last week was more than the end of an era in Irish sport and culture. It was also the end of the illusion that Connacht rugby has any future and should be closed down for the good of all concerned.

The IRFU are determined to talk up Connacht and the rugby writers of Ireland are clearly instructed to stay on message on the topic. But what the IRFU say exists in inverse proportion to what they do and, as anybody can tell you, talk is cheap. Actions count.

The IRFU announced some policy initiative or other before Christmas to give Connacht the support the IRFU claim it deserves as a development team. Seasoned watchers may have wondered what the big deal about this was, as a development is what Connacht were meant to be for the past decade or so. The ugly reality behind the high rhetoric came three days later, when three prominent players announced they were on the way out. People voted with their feet.

Neil Francis, though flawed in many respects, is an accurate barometer of Dublin 4 rugby. Francis has made it quite clear that the idea of a move to Connacht appals any right thinking, fin-headed rugby player inside the M50. And what the Munster defeat does is put the big provinces on the same side of the players. They have no interest in losing players that they need themselves.

Suppose you’re the coach of Munster. You’re watching the rapid aging of your golden generation and you’re coming to terms with the realisation that the younger generation aren’t coming through as you would have liked – O’Leary and Buckley, for instance. And now you’re being asked to sign off other up and coming players to give someone else a dig out? I don’t think so.

Prior to the introduction of the Italian teams this year every team in the Magners League last year had played at least one season of Heineken Cup bar Connacht. Every one. After ten years, that’s no longer a coincidence.

Connacht is falling between two stools. It’s not a development province, because while players have come through it’s been more or less by accident. The other provinces hang onto their own good players and would be mad not to – you didn’t see Ulster sending Paddy Wallace west to take some of the wrinkles out of his game.

And Connacht isn’t a viable professional entity because all the provinces are IRFU dependent, with their central contracts and what have you. Connacht is more dependent than the other three because there is a stronger history of rugby in the other three provinces but the IRFU will only spend enough money to kept Connacht barefoot and dressed in rags. Cinderella got less abuse from the ugly sisters.

And that’s not good enough. The rugby public of Connacht deserve better than to be treated like the Union’s mushrooms. Why persist with the idea of provinces anyway? Ulster is the only one that accurately reflects its people. Munster’s fanbase is more than the geographical province and Leinster’s is less.

The IRFU don’t need a Connacht and the good rugby people of Connacht don’t need being strung along by the IRFU. Set Cinders free from the scullery. She’s scrubbed enough pots by now.