While Irish fans [in particular] might be a little bit too much in love with the Heineken Cup as a format – I’d argue that they’re not, and that it’s a brilliant, hard-fought competition of an extremely high standard – the fact remains that it is the second tier of professional rugby in the northern hemisphere, below only international competition.
There’s no small number of nay-sayers out there who are all too willing to go out on the barricades and denounce young Irish players as “not international standard”, and argue that while they may look good at Heineken Cup level, that it’s a step down from test rugby. Grand. It is a step down … but it’s the next step down. Where else are those players supposed to look good? Two steps down in the Pro12? Playing amateur AIL games in front of two hundred people? Playing tag on Thursday nights in the summer?
Watch a game like the Leinster vs Toulouse semi-final from April of last year, and compare it to the recent England vs Scotland game in the Six Nations. Are you honestly going to tell me that the latter is a higher standard? There were better players [including no fewer than five current or former IRB International Player of the Year nominees in O’Driscoll, Dusautoir, D’Arcy, Heaslip and Jauzion] playing in far more coherent and experienced teams, coached by exceptional men in Noves and Schmidt, in a knock-out, winner-takes-all encounter in the former. The latter? The best you could say of it is that it is the best players of two not-particularly good unions [England are currently ranked fifth and Scotland eleventh, and I think even a red-blooded Saxon yeoman would agree that England’s rating is on the generous side] playing a game in a highly charged environment.
George Kimball Was An International Class Sportswriter; Dexy’s Is Only HEC Standard
Not all international matches are of a high standard or even a given standard, just like not all international teams are of a high standard. Now, the same applies to the Heineken Cup as well: a game at home against Aironi isn’t going to exercise you like going to the Stade Marcel Michelin to try and take Clermont’s scalp. It’s what makes so much of the “he’s not HEC standard/he’s not international standard” criticism that you’ll see on message boards and forums/fora absolutely meaningless.
As a hypothetical, played on a neutral ground with two full-strength squads of either 22 or 23 players, who’d you take between Clermont and Scotland? I’d take Clermont. Leinster against Italy? Give me Leinster. Toulouse against England? Toulouse.
It is definitively A Good Thing that three of the provinces are doing well in the HEC. Don’t get confused with the mumbo-jumbo and cant being pedaled now that we’re into Six Nations season and the minds of the rugby public [and the sports public, more generally] are concentrated on international performance. The idea that it’s an either/or choice between provincial success and international success is farcical, especially given the IRFU protocol that restricts the number of foreign players that can be contracted by any provincial team.
Who won the 2000 Six Nations? England? Who won the 2001 Heineken Cup? Northampton. Who won the 2001 Six Nations? England. Who won the 2001 Heineken Cup? Leicester. It has been done.
I’m not saying the success, or relative success, in the Heineken Cup automatically translates to success in the international game. However, the stronger argument is that it should translate, rather than it shouldn’t. Indeed, that belief is inherent in the IRFU’s contracting process, which delineates between gametime at Pro12 level and at HEC level.
This Column Was Written By A Genuine No7, Making It Great
Amongst all the wailing and gnashing of teeth over ‘real No7s’ and enormous centres [brilliantly dissected on Whiff or Cordite], an almost existential examination of what success in the Heineken Cup ‘really means’, and a subsequent questioning of whether the provincial structure Irish rugby operates under is producing international class players, everybody is searching for the answer to the same question: why do players who play excellently for their provincial teams not play excellently for Ireland?
The current line of though seems to be that what we think of as ‘excellent’ at provincial level isn’t actually ‘excellent’ at international level. Well, we all saw JJV Davies looking pretty ordinary for the Scarlets against Munster in the HEC, so how come his average provincial form translates into shit-hot international form? You know where I’m going here: coaching and attitude at the respective international camps.
None Of You Are As Good As The Best Player In Europe: You’re All Cut
In the most recent Sindo [a rag that never knowingly crosses the threshold of Mole Towers, so apologies if I’m a little behind the pace] Franno vents about the provincial players on show during the Six Nations break not being able to compare with Isa Nacewa:
“I look at the Rabo when the ‘stars’ are away and all I see is Isa Nacewa. Nacewa is not only the best player in Ireland, but in Europe, and when I see him play I look at the other backs and forwards playing with him and against him and wonder why they haven’t even come close to catching up with him — not even mentally.
We could trot out the names of half a dozen bright young things but none of them are remotely ready. That is a worry when you actually assess what should be coming through.”
The “none of them are remotely ready” comment could just as easily have been applied to the five players he mentions earlier in the article who were introduced at one sitting: Hayes, Stringer, O’Gara, Easterby and Horgan. The baby of the five, 21-year old Horgan hadn’t done much of anything as a professional rugby player – he had made his provincial debut for Leinster eighteen months earlier and had scored just three tries in his first twenty-one appearances for the province. He was far from an exceptional case.
Hayes had played just twenty-four professional games as a prop before he was capped, and Stringer just sixteen. I’d say that a 170cm [5’7”] tall scrum-half weighing 71kg [11st3lbs] and less than two months past his twenty-second birthday was in the not-looking-remotely-ready category before Gatland picked him for the first of his ninety-eight test caps.
Obviously the AIL was a serious league back then, and all of these lads would have had a decent grounding in it, but they were all still young-ish players who hadn’t exactly lit up the ranks in their ascent. Even ROG!
The Point. Get To The Point.
Declan Kidney has been put in an invidious position by the FFR/Top14/Six Nations arsing around about the postponement of the French game. The Mole might be on his Tobler here, but the situation reminds me very much of RWC07: non-vintage performance out of the traps in the first game leads to the same team taking the pitch for a game against a team against whom we should be looking to give a couple of other players some gametime to instill competition in the squad.
Italy at home should have been viewed by Kidney as a match in which he could give a couple of guys starts in positions where we’ve got the depth, i.e. Donnacha Ryan at No4, Peter O’Mahony at No7, Fergus McFadden at No12. Those selections would be the ones that immediately suggest themselves. A run-out for one of the young wings mighn’t have been – well, shouldn’t have been – out of the question either: none of the four halfbacks that Italy have shown up with in their last two games [scrum-halves Gori and Semenzatto and outhalves Burton and Botes] have any sort of positional kicking game worth mentioning [apart from slagging it off]. Defensive positioning is usually the weakpoint in a young winger’s game, but if the opposition can’t exploit it, then it’s a fine way to debut.
However, the cancellation of the French game has given Kidney a good excuse [but an excuse none the less] to put any thoughts of experimentation out of his mind. He’ll field the same team as was selected to face France.