Thursday, December 13, 2012

Another Kick in the Head for Connacht Rugby

In what way is the ERC’s cavalier attitude to smaller rugby nations different from the IRFU’S cavalier attitude to its smallest province? On the face of it, they seem birds of a feather.

For those who haven’t been paying attention, a recap. The ERC is the organisation that runs the Heineken Cup. France and England have the richest clubs and they don’t think they’re getting a fair shake in the competition because they have to qualify from their own quite competitive domestic leagues whereas teams from Ireland, Wales, Scotland and Italy do not. The French and English clubs are petitioning the ERC to rejig the Heineken Cup qualification rules so that participation is based on merit, rather than geography.

The Irish Times’ rugby correspondent Gerry Thornley can be relied on for a regular one thousand words of scandalised outrage that money should talk in these circumstances. He, like the majority of the Irish rugby establishment, is utterly horrified at the prospect of any of the advantages three of the Irish provinces have traditionally enjoyed in the Heineken Cup being diluted by one whit, jot, or iota.

And in the green corner: the IRFU is the organisation that runs Irish rugby. Leinster, Munster and Ulster are the provinces with traditionally strong rugby traditions in Ireland, and they always get a fair shake in domestic Irish rugby because any time Connacht ever shows any vague chance of improving someone comes along and poaches their players.

Connacht screams long and loud when this happens, at which time the rugby establishment puts on its best hurt face and says: sorry little buddy. We think you’re doing great here in the bog but, you know, money talks. Of course you can have players. You just can’t have any ones that are any good.

How Connacht rugby gets a following at all is beyond your current correspondent. Sisyphus has a better chance of getting that boulder to the top of the hill than Connacht ever has of being a presence in European rugby.

Leinster, Ulster and Munster all know that there’s only so much food to go around. They could diet for a few years themselves in other to better the nation as a whole, or they could say what we have, we hold. Pull up the drawbridge, and let nature take its course.

They should be careful what they wish for. While the IRFU’s lack of vision is crushing Connacht now, it may crush all of Irish rugby in the end. It is a fact that the Irish provinces can’t survive as independent financial entities. They are dependent on the IRFU and the IRFU should extract a quid pro quo for that dependency by imposing quotas on the specialist positions so the national team will never be short of props or out-halves. How can they look out for Connacht when they barely have the wit to look out for themselves?

This season has been Connacht rugby in a nutshell. The season began with Dan Parks debut at outhalf for Connacht. Dan Parks, an Australian who won an astonishing 67 caps for Scotland. Not so much a has-been as a never-was. It was like Galway United had signed Emile Heskey, and expected to wire it up to Barcelona the next time they were at the Noukamp.

And then, by God, Parks, the clapped out old rust-bucket, found a vein of form. Nobody was going to mistake Dan Parks for Dan Carter, but Connacht played him to his strengths – the boot, the boot and nothing but the boot – and got some victories on the board, none more impressive than the win over Biarritz in Galway last Friday. Connacht looked like they were finally going somewhere.

But while Parks made the headlines, second row Mike McCarthy was the star of the team. So much so that he played for Ireland in the autumn internationals and looked completely at home on the greatest stage. For Connacht, the future looked bright.

So it fits the pattern, then, that McCarthy has already packed his bags and will be gone by the summer. To Leinster, of all places. And the more Connacht howl the more the usual suspects shrug their shoulders and say whaddya gonna do? That’s business. McCarthy is only following the money. It’s a professional game, after all.

The ERC know it’s a professional game too. They’ll do the math of the big clubs and the little clubs and the big countries and little countries and give the IRFU in the end exactly what the IRFU are giving to Connacht. The shaft. It will be a bad for Irish rugby but with their scandalous treatment of Connacht, it’s very hard to say the IRFU won’t deserve it.