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End of term report: Perspective needed even if provinces fell short of their own expectations

Success is defined by silverware in this country but should that always be the case?

Image: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

AS DAWN broke on the first Monday in March, the URC table had a familiar look.

Three Irish provinces, Leinster, Ulster and Munster, occupied the top three places in the standings, which had pretty much been the case in URC/PRO14 rugby since Gregor Townsend’s Glasgow and Wayne Pivac’s Scarlets passed their sell-by date.

That opening weekend in March did little for the URC’s image, Munster beating Dragons 64-3, Leinster scoring 61 points in Treviso, Ulster having 36 to spare after their tussle with Cardiff. Connacht ended that series of games in seventh position; South Africa’s four franchises in eighth, tenth, eleventh and fourteenth.

And yet had we looked closely enough, we should have been able to predict change. At that stage all four South African teams still had eight games left in their regular season, only one of those fixed for Europe.

We’ve since discovered what the Irish/Scots/Welsh/Italians thought of the idea of venturing south of the equator, just two of those 24 South African versus European clashes ending in victory for the tourists.

Come the play-offs, South Africa had three teams in the top eight, Ospreys and Connacht overtaken and forgotten. Now, as we prepare for Bulls versus Stormers in this Saturday’s URC final, almost everyone is saying this is the shake-up the competition needed, everyone that is, except the four Irish provinces.

Their season is over but the post-mortems most certainly are not.

cornal-hendricks-celebrates-winning-a-late-penalty-with-canan-moodie Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

LEINSTER

There were precisely 34 minutes and five seconds played in this season’s Champions Cup final when Ihaia West’s kick allowed La Rochelle entry into Leinster’s 22, and nearly 38 minutes on the clock by the time Leo Cullen’s team exited it.

In between times, there was bravery – not just the bodies-on-the-line stuff we come to expect from men weighing 17st, but also the moral courage Eamon Dunphy used to love spouting on about.

One moment in particular stood out. Brice Dulin, straightening his run, had Dillyn Leyds, to his right, the winger hugging the touchline, no defender in sight. It looked like an inevitable score. But as Leyds screamed for the ball, Dulin got wrapped up in the arms of Jamison Gibson-Park, inadvertently knocking the ball on. A try was saved.

Undeterred, the French side went back to the opposite wing for a penalty, opting to take a five-metre scrum, fully believing their pack had the measure of Leinster’s in the set-piece.

But this time they didn’t. As Dany Priso engaged, Tadhg Furlong managed to manoeuvre the French international into an uncomfortable position, holding his footing as he wrestled with Priso’s grip, forcing the loosehead to drop a knee to the ground. Wayne Barnes signalled a penalty and soon after a period of Leinster pressure resulted in their fourth penalty of the day and a 12-7 half-time lead.

You may have forgotten about this mini-drama because hardly anyone mentioned it in the game’s aftermath. Instead the narrative focused on Ronan O’Gara’s strategy, on La Rochelle’s greater physicality, on Leinster’s failure to see out a game.

But had Will Skelton, Jules Favre, Levani Botia or Romain Sazy spilled a ball in the frantic final minutes of that final, it’s likely the entire post-match analysis would have focused on Leinster’s defence, and in particular on that 10-point swing just before half-time.

The fact it didn’t is because everything in modern sport is framed by the result. You only had to witness the hysteria that greeted Ireland’s defeat to a technically better side, Ukraine, last week, and then the over-the-top reaction of a fine win over an average Scotland team three days later, to realise this behaviour isn’t confined to rugby.

But why do we allow a three-point defeat in a European final be depicted as a failure? Why should a campaign that saw impressive wins over Toulouse and Leicester, that saw a side finish top of the URC standings after an 18-game regular season, be categorised in the not-good-enough category?

The answer is largely because of the standards Leinster have set for themselves, this the first season they haven’t won silverware since 2017. You only have to revisit an interview with their chief executive Mick Dawson from earlier this year to get an idea of what their own definition of success is. “Well, we want another European Cup.”

They didn’t get one. Nor did they get their hands on the URC. They were the best side in the regular season and end the year as the second best team in Europe. There are clubs – the four Welsh ones and the two Scottish sides in particular – who yearn for that kind of year.

But they are measured by a different set of criteria. For Leinster, the checklist is simple. Champions Cup trophy equates a great year, URC title a good one. Anything short of that is considered poor.

Really, it should be different. That heroic defensive display just before half-time and for nine, long minutes just prior to Arthur Retiere’s game-winning try deserves a better word than failure to describe it. As sportswriters and observers we should be able to apply context and perspective to these matters.

But it seems not. History is only ever written by the winners.

james-ryan-walks-back-to-the-dressing-room-as-la-rochelle-lift-the-heineken-champions-cup James Ryan walks past the Champions Cup trophy. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

ULSTER

Way back in 2018, Ulster Rugby was eloquently described as a ‘basket-case’, Brian O’Driscoll the author of those words. This was the year they needed a play-off victory over Ospreys just to qualify for the following season’s Champions Cup.

So, compared to then, this season – a quarter-final win over Munster; back-to-back victories over Leinster, Clermont, Northampton – compares favourably, especially when you remember they also beat the defending European champions in their own backyard.

Oh, and by the time the clock ticked past 83 minutes in their URC semi-final, they were ahead.

But that’s the bit that hurts. They may have been up with a minute to go against the Stormers last weekend. But they lost – another case of history repeating itself. This season they were also leading Munster with six minutes remaining at Thomond Park; they had an aggregate lead over Toulouse with five minutes to go in their Champions Cup tie.

They lost both games.

Think back to last season. Against Leicester in the Challenge Cup semi-final, they were 17-6 up at half-time. Against Toulouse in the Champions Cup pool stage, they had a two-point lead with 15 minutes remaining; against Gloucester a week later they entered the 83rd minute with the scoreboard reflecting their dominance.

They lost each time.

That’s who they are right now, Europe’s Nearly Men. Under Dan McFarland they’ve certainly improved on where they were, reaching a final, three semi-finals and two quarter-finals in his four years in charge, getting out of their Champions Cup pool three years out of four, which is three more than they managed in the four years prior to his arrival.

If they are to become more than just a semi-final team, two things need to happen. Luck is one. They had Jacob Stockdale available for just one game this season; Will Addison for four, Jordi Murphy for six, Luke Marshall for three. Come last weekend, they were missing all those players plus Sam Carter, Mike Lowry and Marty Moore.

We saw the effects. Among their eight replacements, two players in their 23-man matchday squad didn’t see any action while another two didn’t enter the field until the 80th minute. That was hardly a vote of faith.

So, they need a bigger squad; they need a bit more luck and most of all they need to learn how to close the deal. It’s the difference between good and great.

ethan-mcilroy-dejected-after-the-game Ethan McIlroy reflects on Ulster's defeat. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

MUNSTER

Alex Ferguson said it was the biggest mistake of his career. This was in 2001. He’d already been at Manchester United 15 years when he announced his decision to retire.

“A lot of them put their tools away,” Ferguson later reflected. “They thought, ‘Oh, the manager’s leaving’.”

In 1999 they won the Treble but in that 2001/02 season they finished third in the Premier League, got knocked out of the FA Cup in the fourth round, of the League Cup in the third round. Next time around, when Ferguson decided in 2013 to retire for good, he kept the news quiet. “I learned my lesson,” he said.

It’s a pity no one in Irish Rugby has learned theirs. Five times now something like this has happened, Michael Cheika in 2010; Joe Schmidt in 2019; Pat Lam in 2017; Rassie Erasmus in 2018 and now Johann van Graan. Each time results slipped off.

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Apparently the whole point of getting these coaches to hand their notice in six months or a year in advance is to give the IRFU and the provinces time to source a successor. Next time lads, don’t bother inserting that kind of clause.

The reality is that when a coach goes public with their intention to leave, part of their authority goes with them. You only had to be in Ravenhill two weeks ago to realise that, a night when Ulster played as a team, Munster as individuals.

The nature of that defeat undermined a lot of the good stuff van Graan did. He oversaw victories over Clermont, Racing, Saracens, Leicester, Toulon prior to this season and this term he was berated for the misery of his side’s display against Castres, even though Munster beat the French side both home and away. The same Castres finished this season top of the Top 14. Munster then went on to beat the 2020 European Cup winners before drawing with their successors in the knock-out stages.

That’s one side of the argument. The other is that he failed to land silverware.

This remains a big deal in Irish rugby as Munster won enough of it between 2000 and 2011 to allow a generation of players become pundits. Their faces and voices on our TV screens keeps the glory years fresh in people’s memories. And that’s what the current lot are measured against.

In truth, winning silverware is the measurement for every province bar Connacht which is fine in one respect, as expectation drives up standards. But context is also needed.

The provinces have just two trophies to play for; in soccer, the leading seven Premier League clubs have four.

That factor has to be considered every time a season passes without a victory parade as teams like Munster and Ulster could really do with a rugby equivalent of the Carabao Cup to compete for. Until that option becomes available, it’s hard to see their trophy drought ending any time soon.

alex-kendellen-simon-zebo-and-thomas-aherne-after-the-game Munster players leave the pitch after Toulouse. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

CONNACHT

Just like Leinster, Munster and Ulster, on the surface this looked like a mediocre year. But just like Leinster, Munster and Ulster, there were good days as well as bad. For starters, they completely outplayed two of last weekend’s URC semi-finalists, Ulster and Bulls, producing some of the best rugby any Irish side delivered in 2021/22.

URC finalists Stormers were also defeated at the Sportsground, as were Munster, so too Stade Francais. Premiership leaders Leicester required a miraculous comeback to win there, the bonus points Connacht secured in those back-to-back Leicester games and away to Stade helping them become the first Connacht team to escape their Champions Cup pool.

And yet, we can’t oversell what they did in Europe. These days, 16 out of 24 entrants qualify out of the pool stage whereas it used to be the case that 16 out of the 24 were eliminated by the time knock-out rugby got under way. Connacht’s European campaign ended with just one win from six games.  

In truth, operating on two fronts, the URC and Champions Cup, served to expose the thinness of their squad. They just couldn’t afford Ultan Dillane to have the least effective season of his Connacht career; for Bundee Aki to be available for just seven of their 24 games, Gavin Thornbury for five, Denis Buckley for eight.

An eleventh placed finish does not amount to much and yet again it’s worth pointing out how perception and reality sometimes collide. Connacht won nine and lost nine in this season’s URC; last year in the Pro14 they won eight and lost eight of their regular season games, results which were good enough to see them finish second in their Conference.

Were they markedly better last year compared to this? No, far from it. But sometimes the table does lie especially when they operate in a league where they have to play three of the leading sides (Munster/Leinster/Ulster) twice whereas play-off rivals Edinburgh and Glasgow are forced to do so just once.

The derby games are often where we see the best of them; the following weeks when they tend to be at their worst. We thought Dragons at home was a low point until Glasgow came to Galway. Had Connacht won those two games they would have made the play-offs.

Instead they had to head for their summer break with regrets, just like players from Ireland’s other three provinces. It was one of those years.

 

Get instant updates on your province on The42 app. With Laya Healthcare, official health and wellbeing partner to Leinster, Munster and Connacht Rugby.

About the author:

Garry Doyle

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