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Comment: Why World Cup could have a huge impact on Irish provinces' Euro dreams

Ulster's Jacob Stockdale will be one of Ireland's key men at the World Cup.
Ulster's Jacob Stockdale will be one of Ireland's key men at the World Cup.
Jonathan Bradley

By Jonathan Bradley

In two of the three opening seasons of the Heineken Cup, Irish teams failed to make it beyond the pool stages. Since then, it's happened only once.

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In the same period, 11 Irish sides have made it to the final - and on one occasion met each other - in a collective show of strength so great that just five years ago the competition was revamped in an effort by the French and English to redress the balance.

While Saracens are deserved champions of the competition, and are not just favourites to repeat that feat but are in the conversation as one of the all-time great club sides, the collective consistency of the Irish sides has come to be taken for granted to such a degree that their annus horribilis has come to stick out like a sore thumb in the record books.

That was 2015-16 - the year the provinces floundered.

While Connacht and Leinster both made what was then the Pro12 final, Irish interest in Europe ended in the winter. Leinster finished bottom of their pool, Munster won only once against anyone other than what was then lowly Italian opposition and Ulster blew a glorious chance to make the last eight when they missed out by a point having failed to bank a try-bonus against soon-to-be relegated Oyonnax.

There were mitigating circumstances of course. All three had what were then inexperienced coaches at the helm. Anthony Foley was in his second year in charge of the Munster side he had represented for so long with such distinction, while Ulster and Leinster were in year one under Les Kiss and Leo Cullen respectively.

There'd been a changing of the guard on the playing side too. In the preceding three springtimes, Brian O'Driscoll, Johann Muller and Paul O'Connell, in that order, had all played their final games at the RDS, at Kingspan Stadium and at Thomond Park respectively. All three sides operated under new leadership.

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But, both then and now, the main cause for such a lacklustre continental showing was cited as the lingering hangover from that season's World Cup, an idea that was only strengthened when the quarter-finals were made up of only English and French sides.

Ireland had, as is tradition, crashed out at the quarter-finals, their defeat to Argentina notable not just for the way the Pumas tore through Joe Schmidt's side in the wide channels but the injury profile they took into the last eight tie.

Johnny Sexton, O'Connell, Peter O'Mahony and Jared Payne all missed the game, while Tommy Bowe and Iain Henderson picked up injuries during it.

Those that returned fit were drained mentally and physically and Ireland's efforts hit the provinces all season, never more evident than in Europe.

While it must be noted that in 2012 there were no such issues - Ulster and Leinster both advancing to the final - eight seasons is a long enough time to argue that the game has changed to a significant degree. The toll on Test stars simply seems larger.

With that said, it becomes a numbers game. Ireland's World Cup squad for Japan will be drawn from just four teams, just as Wales' minus a few notable exceptions.

While Scotland's selection policy is looser, Glasgow, as well as Challenge Cup side Edinburgh, remain bulk suppliers to Gregor Townsend's panel.

The lingering after effects of the tournament are no less severe for England or France players, but when they filter back to their clubs they are more spread out, split as they are between 12 and 14 clubs respectively.

Ulster have seven of their frontliners in the extended Ireland squad, and who knows how many more could yet be involved due to injury, which represents virtually half their team. With the exceptions of Stuart McCloskey and Marcell Coetzee, it's the core of their starting XV that are gone too.

So while on the surface Leinster got as nice a draw as they could have hoped for, and Ulster will hardly have been unhappy either - the less said about Munster's rotten luck the better - there is an extra hurdle to be negotiated this season.

Ulster have seen how important the likes of Henderson and Jacob Stockdale are to their cause, and seeing them returned in good physical and mental health from the rigours of Japan will be a key concern as the Champions Cup kick-off approaches.

There are just two weeks between the final in Yokohama and the first round of pool fixtures in the Champions Cup.

Even after Schmidt and Rory Best exit the stage of Irish Rugby, the show must go on... and quickly.

Belfast Telegraph


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