I saw a very interesting tweet on the page of ex-Munster and Auckland Blues player Mike Storey recently, in which he suggested part of the reason that Ireland failed on the three-test tour to New Zealand was that “Irish players never play 3 tough games in a row”. It struck me as a really valid point and led me to question just how well Ireland’s domestic and European rugby calendar prepares our players for consecutive top-level international action.
Let’s start by looking at the Heineken Cup. I don’t want to get into a deep discussion of whether the flagship European competition is better or worse than the Southern Hemisphere’s Super Rugby. Whatever your opinion on that, let’s agree for now that the two tournaments are of a roughly equivalent playing standard. The Heineken Cup consists of 6 pool games and then a maximum of 3 knock-out games. Obviously, only two teams in the tournament will play 9 games, with the rest playing 6-8.
Now look at the Super Rugby tournament, expanded to 15 teams this year. Each franchise/region/club will play a minimum of 16 games. Those who make the play-offs will play 17-19. That’s basically double the amount of top-level games that Super Rugby players can take part in compared to their Irish peers. I’m aware that teams like the Blues, Lions and Force are poor, but having watched much of this year’s tournament, there’s always the possibility of those sides beating one of the big boys. The Blues for example have a handful of current and ex internationals, and I’m confident they’d beat their ‘equivalents’ in the Heineken Cup (Aironi, London Irish, Treviso).
So where do Irish players make up the rest of their ‘big games’ in a club season? The PRO12 is obviously the next place to look. I don’t want to start tearing apart the competition (I actually enjoy it very much), but the reality is that there are very few ‘big’ games in the PRO12, apart from the play-offs. How often do we see a genuinely crucial PRO12 game in store? It’s a rare thing. A fixture like Munster vs. Ulster should be a massive game every single time it’s played, but the simple fact is that it’s not.
The issue is not even that neither side will regularly select their strongest XV for this type of game, but that there is no genuine pressure attached. Deep down, national rivalry apart, it’s not an important game. If Ulster lose and finish 5th or 6th in the league, it’s no big deal. They’ll still be in the Heineken Cup next season. So even if talented young players are given a chance to play in the PRO12, there is little pressure on their shoulders. This has advantages, but more pressurised, more important games would bring far more benefits.
That brings us back to the number of top-level games that the Southern Hemisphere players are getting. Obviously New Zealand’s top internationals don’t play every single Super Rugby game. Having a quick glance at the stats, their number of starts will be around 12-15 per season. That’s still more than our Irish internationals, who’ll get 7-9 in the Heineken Cup. So who replaces those All Blacks in the remaining 6-8 games? This is where the next line of international players, their young prospects, are being exposed. So not only are New Zealand’s top players getting more high-quality rugby than their Irish peers, but their young talent is being tested at a far higher level than ours.
Going back to the original point highlighted by Mike Storey, let’s use two players to give a rough comparison of the regularity of top-class club games. Rob Kearney and Israel Dagg serve the purpose well, having been put forward as a key individual battle before last month’s test series. Kearney made a total of 16 appearances for Leinster this season. But how many of them were of Heineken Cup standard? Well he played in all 9 of the H-Cup games, and I’d include the PRO12 final against Ospreys and the first PRO12 game against Munster in that bracket as well, for a total of 11 top-quality club games this season.
Dagg has already started 12 Super Rugby games for the Crusaders in 2012. Remember too that Kearney’s season was spread over the latter part of 2011 and the first half of 2012. On the basis that Super Rugby and Heineken Cup are roughly equivalent, Dagg has already played more high-quality games than Kearney, with possibly 3 more to come. Despite the All Blacks’ fullback’s season starting 4 months later than Kearney’s, he’d actually played more of these top-quality games before the June tests. Which brings us right to the crux of the matter.
Not only had Kearney played less top-level club games, but they’d been spread out over a far greater period of time. While Dagg played Super Rugby games on 7 consecutive weekends from the 24th of March to the 6th of May, the most consecutive weekends Kearney played in ‘big’ games was two. The IRFU’s player management policy obviously plays a part in ensuring that Ireland’s top internationals receive adequate rest, but is it also holding our players back? Or is the structure of the Heineken Cup not testing our players regularly enough?
Clearly, there are several reasons behind Ireland’s failure in New Zealand. Whiff of Cordite and the Demented Mole have both written excellent articles on what looks to be the main reason, the coach. This piece is in no way meant as a defence of Declan Kidney. There’s no excuse for losing by 60 points in an international test match, whatever the merits of European club rugby. The intention here is to provoke debate and get your thoughts on whether the Irish provinces need to be playing top-level rugby more regularly. Please feel welcome to leave a comment with your views on the issue.