It is understandable to view the 09/10 Irish rugby season as bit of a disappointment. No Heineken Cup win, no Grandslam and not even a trifling Triple Crown or a measly Magners league title. Ulster in particular, have had a difficult season vying at the business end of the season with Connacht for the third and last Heineken Cup slot.
Of course Ireland did beat the World Champions South Africa back in November and Munster, Leinster and Connacht made their respective Euro semi-finals. Ulster too, almost made it out of a very difficult Heineken Cup group and have a raft of good young players coming through with three of them making débuts for the senior Ireland team against the Barbarians this evening.
But, it is surely a measure of Irish success over the last while, with Ireland winning the triple crown for four out of the last seven years and with Munster, Leinster and Ulster all winning the Heineken Cup, that we have got a little bit complacent and perhaps a little too expectant. And in case you think I am exaggerating, and to put Ireland’s Heineken Cup successes in perspective, consider the fact that no Welsh team – where rugby is the national sport – has ever won the competition.
Next year, 2011, is World Cup year and just to indulge my fantasies a little we may ‘only’ have to beat Australia, Wales and England (all teams, let it be said, that we have beaten recently) for us to have an Ireland v South Africa final and as I mentioned above, we have just beaten these South African guys last time out.
OK, OK, I know expectancy and complacency will be the death of us.
Of course Irish success did not come about by accident, and although the provincial structure seemed to be ideal in terms of the number of teams and players for the onset of professionalism a lot of credit has to go to the IRFU for managing to keep the Irish players at home in spite of the lure of larger salaries overseas and their general good stewardship through what have been extremely turbulent times for the sport.
So as the Irish squad head off for their Southern Hemisphere world cup rehearsals all is good and wholesome and healthy? Well, mainly. But (and I bet you were waiting for this) two issues really, really, get my goat.
The first has resulted from the decision of the IRFU to redevelop Lansdowne Road which means that from the Autumn of this year we will end up with an international rugby stadium with a capacity of only 51,000. To resolve that, we will have to rely on the GAA changing its long term policy on the use of Croker.
The venues for the Heineken Cup have just been announced for 2011 and 2012 and despite the fact that the oldest rugby stadium in the Universe will soon be re-opening it’s doors, the Millennium stadium and Twickenham have been given the nod – both of which surprise, surprise have capacities of over 80,000.
That’s a lot of lost revenue to the country (assuming at least one away team) and prestige etc and surely in these times of economic hardship we need to re-open the debate on ‘foreign’ sports in the part-publically-funded Croker.
The second is more overtly political and relates to protocol and certain members of Ireland’s rugby team and particularly those from Ulster (and possibly a few from Dublin 4?) having to stand to attention whilst staring at their boots rather than joining in all the pre-match singing.
If the Soldier’s Song is not inclusive enough for players from both political traditions then it should simply be replaced by Ireland’s Call (although, yes, I accept it is a bit of a dirge) for all international matches both home and away, irrespective of whether the President is in attendance or not.
While we are it (and I’ve a loan of Slugger’s ‘bully pulpit’), let’s ditch the other trappings of the ROI state in the ground and not just to ensure that rugby remains an excellent example of North South cooperation but because it the surely the right thing to do – if they are one team – then lets treat them as one team.
So given that Irish Rugby is surely the best example of successful, non coercive all Ireland-ery and North-Southery surely it is time for those in charge in the IRFU to show sensitivity for the complex and sensitive relationships on the island and surely it is also time for those political parties like SF and the SDLP, who argue for more All Ireland institutions, to campaign for change and prove that when they say they want to reach out to Unionists, that they actually mean it?
And while they are at that (I promise this is the last), why don’t they campaign to get Croker open for the benefit of all sports and for the economic well being of the country – after all if it was going to be good enough for the now lost cause of the Maze/Long Kesh/Bobby Bowl to play all types of sport, then it surely should be good enough for Croker?