Provincial Success ≠ International Success

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?

Leinster vs Toulouse in the 2011 HEC semi-final: you'd want to be daft to say that this doesn't compare favourably with some of the test rugby we have already seen in this year's Six Nations

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.

Three provinces in the Heineken Cup quarter-finals? How is that anything but a good thing. The onus should be on the Irish coaching staff to make the team more than the sum of its parts ... that's basically the job description.

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.

O'Gara and Stringer on debut against Scotland in February 2000: 'Not remotely ready' either, I'd say. A combined 215 caps later, everything looks a little different.

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.

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7 thoughts on “Provincial Success ≠ International Success

  1. Anyone any thoughts on the 4 games in 4 weeks we will be playing? Not arsed finding the exact quote, but in an IT article on the Monday after the non-match there was some gnashing of teeth at the thought of playing 4 whole games in a row.

    Player fatigue is a serious concern of course, and player management might be annoying provincially but I can appreciate the reasoning behind. But there I feel the IRFU medical/fitness staff blow it way out of proportion. Every September club sides will take a few weeks to get into a groove, we only play 5 games in the spring so surely playing 4 of them on the trot is a good thing. If the lads are stiff and sore give them more protein and nuerofen. Hell, I’ll even let them do acupuncture, wear balance bands or any other bit of quackery without slagging them or thinking less of them.

    Or, heaven forbid, build up a squad of 25/30 players wherein anyone can genuinely slot in at a moments notice.

    • Shaggy said on Against The Head that he’d have absolutely no problem playing four games in a week, and that most players loved to play every weekend. Obviously it’s different for backs and forwards, but if you use your subs in a sensible fashion you can reduce the problem. Good luck with that Declan!

  2. I think the likes of Kiss and Smal are good, international calibre coaches though Ciaran, and love him or hate him [or mostly quite like him but occasionally get irritated by him], Kidney has steered a lot of teams to a lot of cups at a lot of levels.

    There’s something missing there, and it’s the inability to perform consistently well, and with consistent intensity and precision. I don’t think the players are incapable of raising their games to international level, it’s that they’re just not doing it on a regular basis.

    • I feel like I come on here a lot to defend people, Toland, thornley, kidney, even George hook. It’s some kind of playground thing, always having to stand up for somebody. Needless to say I’ve got my share of kickings as a result. I will be at it again in a minute too…

      But in this instance I reckon you’ve got legitimate criticism mole. This was a match to throw a little bit of caution to the wind, go for a few of the changes you’ve mentioned or maybe try Ferris in the 2nd row, maybe try madigan off the bench, maybe try bowe at 13. Ironically I get the feeling this team was picked to give a safe victory and get back on track…… and all because of some ott criticism! If we ain’t prepared to experiment with Italy at home, in a year after a world cup, then when? That’s a fair sentiment to express and you have done so very well mole – a great article.

      Having said that, people who think the answer lies in having a deans…..they would do well to remember the bizarre treatment of Matt giteau, the selection of the grey man and the general man management/overseeing of implosion of quade cooper. I’d say a few Queensland supporters don’t think too much of deans! Ok, maybe gatland then? Don’t forget it was only thanks to injury that he didn’t have gavin henson in the world cup team! I’ve seen a few online teamtalks….profound he ain’t. I know these guys are top coaches but I’m making the point you won’t get everything you want with anyone, although I must admit Schmidt has been a logical, creative and likeable top dog, in a good set up. He don’t make too many decisions where you are scratching your head. But would he revel in the not day to day environment of international? I think kidney has hinted before he does find it a bit unnatural, not being at the coalface. Maybe guy noves is the shrewdest of them all!

      In terms of the translation of province to country, darce’s recent comments on the subject are worth a review. I think he highlighted how it was tough to put a season’s preparation which you get with leinster into a few days which you get internationally. You are more on your own and there is less certainty in each other – the end result (performance) can be a bit like a box of chocolates…..you know the rest. Although, Christ these lads are bound to know each other a bit by now!

      Where am I goin with this? Just to say yes the pressure appears telling a little bit. I agree a trick has been missed in this selection, but Its worth remembering that (despite some hysteria) things are hardly unhealthy in the bigger picture and there will be good days no doubt over the next month and beyond. Not that cups always are a sign of true success, but we do have a proven head coach to find a way through this patch. Another hand on deck to share workload duties would seem sensible mind you.

      • A lot of good points there, Paddy O.

        There’s definitely a touch of the grass being greener when you compare Kidney with Gatland & Deans … Deans gets a really hard time from a big section of the Aussie fanbase, and Gatland certainly has his flaws.

        The comments about a club coach having more control are well-made too; even though the Irish coaching staff DO have quite a lot of access to the players [and especially so this season, a World Cup year], the job of a club coach is much more hands-on.

  3. Agree with this championship smacking of RW07. Change for change sake isn’t always a good thing (Copyright D. Kidney), but we’ve seen before where consistency has created problems for Ireland. It’s hard to arrest the lack of momentum being created without introducing fresh blood. Is it as simple as saying that if Gatty were coach of Ireland Ryan et al would be starting?

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