Tyrone Howe: Irish rugby thriving in tough times
In the traditional Christmas Day Queen’s Speech, it was suggested that 2009 could be a year best forgotten.
Given the hardships of recession and the credit crunch, it is fair comment — here it has been incredibly tough, while in the south, the world has been turned upside down.
How ironic, then, that rugby union has thrived throughout this difficult time and achieved its greatest ever year.
Forgettable could hardly be further from the truth. A Magners League title, a Heineken Cup triumph, a Grand Slam, the first since 1948, and a year of unbeaten international rugby for Ireland — absolutely unforgettable would be closer to the mark. For Irish rugby it was a true ‘annus mirabilis’.
Here in Ulster the second half of the year has given us reason to be more positive about the state of the game here.
Performances have improved, and it feels like we have the right man in Brian McLaughlin to lead us forward.
We are not out of the woods yet, far from it, and consistency is still the key target for the squad and coaching staff, but I am convinced that Ulster is in good hands and on the right road back.
A current eighth place in the Magners League does not do justice to the team’s efforts. Six points off fourth position gives everyone something real to aspire to, but as I predicted in my opening column at the start of the season, I would see a solid mid table finishing position as positive progress, considering the turmoil of the last few seasons.
Back to the wider perspective and it may be difficult to imagine how 2009 could be bettered in terms of rugby achievements. But, of course, it can.
However, for Irish rugby to remain at the forefront of Northern Hemisphere rugby, it will require every ounce of its resolve.
Currently in second and fourth position respectively, it is more than likely that one of, if not both, Leinster and Munster will contest the Magners League Grand Final.
If either can play to their potential, it is hard to see a better side in the domestic competition, no matter what the league positions suggest.
The same could be said in the Heineken Cup. Munster’s superb bonus point away victory over Perpignan now rewards them with the potential to not only qualify but also to secure a vital home berth in the quarter-final stages.
Leinster showed in their back to back games with the Scarlets that, when they really click, they can play stylish and ruthless rugby.
Despite an almighty battle ahead against London Irish in their final qualifying Heineken game, I expect Leinster to make the knock-out stages, but if they miss out on a home fixture in the quarters, they will be under enor
mous pressure to deliver a final hurrah for outgoing coach Michael Cheika.
While Ulster’s Heineken Cup chances may not theoretically be over, Stade Francais are in charge of their own destiny.
Whatever happens, Ulster need to look for another two big performances against Edinburgh and Bath, as a place beckons in the knock-out stages of the Amlin Challenge Cup. At the very least, this would get our team more conditioned to playing European rugby after mid-January — while it might not seem as long, it is over a decade since that happened.
The first half of 2010 gives us so much to look forward to in all competitions, but the greatest of all would be a back-to-back Grand Slam.
The last Six Nations started with a sterling performance against France, and with this fixture away in the Stade de France, I have a feeling that our chances of history-making may well depend, once again, on how our Gallic neighbours feel in the early evening of February 13.