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We need investors with deep pockets to close gap on elite

By Tony Ward

Published 19/12/2015

Euro agony: Leinster’s Jamie Heaslip, Jonathan Sexton and Jack McGrath dejected at the final whistle in the defeat to Toulon
Euro agony: Leinster’s Jamie Heaslip, Jonathan Sexton and Jack McGrath dejected at the final whistle in the defeat to Toulon

If anyone had suggested earlier in the year that Premier League champions elect Chelsea and seemingly relegation-bound Leicester would effectively be swapping positions before 2015 was out they'd be calling for men in white coats.

What has transpired in the interim is remarkable and yet that's sport.

I think it worth drawing the parallel because in all codes, success is cyclical. Irish rugby is going through tough times at provincial level, at least in terms of competing at the top table of European rugby at this point in time. The golden generation and glory years of Irish rugby, specifically between 2006 and 2012, have gone.

Lest we forget, there were five European Cup titles with a Grand Slam (in '09) central to that mix achieved by an outstanding group of players backboned by Munster and Leinster at the peak of their powers, and no we're not forgetting the trail-blazing success of Ulster's David Humphreys and Co in '99. Point being that in every sporting endeavour there are ups and downs. It's called life.

Right now all three Irish provinces involved in the main event are going through a period of transition. Good enough still to compete for PRO12 success, but on the Champions Cup stage short of what is required to go the whole way and challenge the current elite of European rugby.

A number of factors have brought this about, not least financial whereby the French and English have invested heavily in the quest for European success.

There are not too many teams in World Rugby that would take on and beat the Toulon All Stars at this point in time. The All Blacks yes, but in all honesty would you back any other international team with any degree of certainty?

I abhor the principle of buying success but such is the way of the world in professional sport. Whether it is a Roman Abramovich or a Mourad Boudjellal the involvement of multi-millionaires in sports they love (to be fair) is now a fact of life.

While I have no doubt whatsoever that the current dip in Irish form is temporary, nonetheless in order to compete for silverware at the top end the need for a radical rethink by way of opening the door to private investment is essential. This is no longer wishful thinking but a practical reality.

Whether it is a Denis O'Brien, a JP McManus or a Dermot Desmond or whoever, the need to entice private investment in our four professional entities is great.

It is up to the various CEOs in consultation with Philip Browne and the IRFU to put the type of commercial package in place in order to compete in attracting the quality of global superstars we once did but are now Top 14 and English Premiership-bound.

It must be no short-term fix but a long-term plan aimed at marrying our ultra-efficient age-grade and Academy systems with the clear and obvious benefits to be had from enticing the very best of global talent to our shores.

Make no mistake, the game at elite level below international is at a crossroads. We may profess to hate what the English and French have done but to borrow from the great Willie Duggan "it's time to s**t or get off the pot".

But back to matters today in the Aviva and tomorrow in Toulouse, Leicester, and of course Newcastle as well. One home game against three-time champions building a head of steam towards a fourth success in a row with the other three on the road makes for a nasty end to a year that started so well.

Aside from Connacht's chances in the Challenge Cup I cannot see any of the other three causing any ripple come the business end in April. To survive through to January with interest still intact will be an achievement in itself.

However, of much more importance than that is the need to perform.

Ulster provided the first real boost for Irish rugby since the international bubble burst in the Millennium in October when taking Toulouse apart in Belfast last Friday. It was arguably the province's best European win ever, such was the totality of the performance. Can they repeat that performance nine days on?

For Leinster the pressure is even greater again given the context of today's game. Some 40,000 are due to attend and if ever a squad owed its coaching staff and paying support one it is this Leinster unit now.

They didn't play that badly in Toulon and yet never looked like winning. The entire emphasis must be on performance - individual and collective.

They need a big one too from their main man. If Jonathan Sexton is firing then so too will Leinster. If ever opportunity knocked to strike back this is it.

All told it makes for a strange weekend of European Cup rugby with all three former winners starting out as underdogs.

Connacht too will have their work cut out albeit in the shadow competition in Newcastle. All current evidence suggests Pat Lam's side is the only one capable of going the whole way and with it the prize of a place in next year's main event.

It's been a dismal end to a year that started with such high expectations. Perhaps we lost the run of ourselves but I think not. What is for sure is that right now morale is low, with Connacht the shining light.

Round four wins may do little more than extend interest into the New Year but we'll take that gladly. A revamped national squad will soon be going into camp. The door is open. Time for a new generation to go barging through.

Belfast Telegraph

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