When Willie Anderson speaks about Irish rugby, his knowledge and insight are laced with pride and passion.
His experience as a 27 times-capped international who went on to coach London Irish, Leinster and Scotland — the latter two as assistant to Matt Williams — makes his opinion impossible to ignore.
So when he warns that Ireland need a joined-up approach if they are to progress, you listen.
Coming so soon after the Irish blew their chance of a second Grand Slam in three seasons, his words have particular resonance.
France’s 25-22 victory in Dublin on Sunday dashed Ireland’s hopes and rekindled memories of Mick Doyle’s 1985 side in which Anderson played.
“We were in a commanding position against the French in Dublin and allowed them back into the game for a 15-15 draw. We won the Triple Crown and the championship though,” Anderson recalls.
He does not envisage the class of 2011 repeating that Crown-and-title double, however, as he believes France will beat England at Twickenham 10 days hence en route to victories over Italy in Rome and Wales in Paris for back-to-back Grand Slams.
The 55-year-old Sullivan Upper School teacher is deeply worried about what happens when the Irish game’s golden generation finally disappear over the horizon.
“In the past 10 years Ireland have progressed. Certainly they have played some great rugby and they’ve had some great results,” he added. “But when you look at the ages of the guys — a lot of them are well into their 30s — you know this group can’t go on too much longer.
“Wallace, O’Gara, Stringer, O’Connell, the centres all are very good players and great servants of Irish rugby. And there may even be one last hurrah in them at the World Cup. But then what’s coming?”
He believes the 2011 World Cup winners will be Australia who have in place exactly the sort of format Anderson wants Ireland to introduce. We have our provinces, they have their states.
“I believe there needs to be a shared vision and national philosophy rather than what we have at the moment which is four separate franchises operating independently,” he argued.
“That is not a criticism of the provinces, it is a simple statement of fact as to the way things are.
“There is no consistency at Union-level when it comes to new strategies. Where is the vision? What is the vision? Who is driving it?
“If we are to go forward there has to be an entwined, phased, planned structure so that the provinces are part of a national strategy.
“For me the word that keeps coming to mind is ‘alignment’. We don’t have that; instead we have individual identities. We have the IRFU sponsoring four different franchises — all doing their own thing — rather than a Union bringing things together under a formula we all share.
“We need structure, we need our coaches to be in alignment so that they are all working in tandem with one another towards an agreed, overall goal. You have to have that and it has to run right the way through the Under-18s, the Under-20s, the As and the seniors. That is not what we have at the moment.
“Of the four provinces, Leinster’s structure is the best by far. What they have is absolutely fantastic. They are winning and bringing through home-grown players which is very good news for Ireland. Ulster are part-way there, though they have brought in the South African boys in the hope of speeding things up. Will that work? I don’t know because development takes time. It doesn’t happen overnight.
“They have reached the quarter-finals of the Heineken Cup, which is great, both from a financial point of view and in terms of boosting Ulster’s standing. And the draw — against Northampton who are having to move from their own stadium for this one — could have been a lot worse.
“Ulster have a chance, though they need to build towards that match by producing a run of steadily improving League performances in the weeks leading up to it. But I would have concerns for Munster. They have stagnated by sitting on what they have done in the past and just buying players in.
“So you have Leinster who seem to be rolling good young Irish players off some sort of a conveyor belt, Ulster who are improving but using a different method altogether and Munster, who are in decline.
“So again I ask; where is the unity of purpose and the shared vision for Irish rugby’s overall good?”