Another weekend of European misery for Ireland’s historically most successful provinces
By Phil Rice
Watching the two provinces struggling at the weekend it is hard to believe that between 2006 and 2012 Munster and Leinster won Europe’s top club trophy on five occasions.
As French and English clubs splash the cash on overseas players the IRFU have dictated that our clubs must minimise the import of overseas players.
The slide from grace in European rugby became more pronounced at the weekend with Munster losing at home to Leicester and Leinster falling to the ‘galacticos’ of Toulon. The best of Irish talent could not measure up to the weight of multinational superstars pitted against them.
It is difficult to measure how damaging this recent downturn in the provinces fortunes will be to the national team. There is no doubt that the success of our teams during that glorious winning period spilled over to the Irish team, with confidence high and the impact of carefully selected overseas players proving vital to the development of home produced talent.
It may be that young Irish players are being given opportunities to play at the highest level of club rugby but if they are being thrashed every week is that really benefiting the Irish game?
Players like Brad Thorne, Rocky Elsom and Johann Muller had major impacts on the success of the Irish teams and the younger players learned a great deal from their influence.
Ruan Pienaar is still having a huge impact on the Ulster team and they benefitted to the tune of a 38-0 victory over 2010 champions Toulouse at the weekend.
A number of our international players are clearly still suffering from a World Cup hangover. Johnny Sexton, Jamie Heaslip, Devin Toner and Cian Healy are a shadow of their former selves.
Sexton was almost embarrassed by his ineptitude on Sunday. His kicking out of hand was inaccurate and his poor distribution prevented Leinster’s backs from developing any attacking pattern.
Leo Cullen commented after the game, “Our game management was poor,” a clear reference to the failure of his key playmaker, Sexton to stamp any authority on proceedings.
It seems extraordinary that experienced professional players cannot regain their focus. With the Six Nations around the corner Joe Schmidt must be watching his players dismal performances with dismay.
Thankfully Ulster recovered from their thrashing by Saracens in the previous round of matches. Despite not having the influential Iain Henderson available, they shunted their celebrated opponents in the scrum and with Pienaar pulling the strings at scrum half they were in total control.
Andrew Trimble had an excellent game, one bright spark on an otherwise depressing weekend for Joe Schmidt. Toulouse will be a different proposition at home this week when the two teams play each other again.
However Ulster’s confidence will be high and an away win would propel them back into the competition. Munster and Leinster face the same opposition again this week although with less optimism. The visit of Toulon to the Aviva Stadium will attract a near capacity crowd.
Perhaps the “Lansdowne roar” will install some passion into the lowly Leinster team. Connacht continued their winning ways last weekend with a creditable win over English Premiership side Newcastle, in the Challenge Cup.
A repeat victory over the Tynesiders this weekend would almost guarantee their qualification to the knock-out stages.