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Heineken success distorts bigger picture

THIS picture goes a long way towards telling you what’s the matter with Irish rugby.

Last month, Tom Court was decimated at tighthead as Ireland were embarrassed at Twickenham.

Here Court savours victory over Munster at Thomond Park at the weekend. Redemption!

Er, not quite.

The day Court puts Alex Corbisiero into reverse as Ireland atone for their shocking collapse on St Patrick’s Day will be the day he’s earned redemption. But here, he appears to be telling his critics to shush, debate over, he da man.

To be fair, perhaps the picture is misleading and the maligned prop was merely captured in the act of picking his left nostril.

Also, he’s had a torrid few weeks since the England debacle and some kind of release in a moment of triumph is no sin.

Moving on from this picture to the bigger picture, though, is the message that we can forget about the shambles in Twickenham; Irish sides are on the march again in the Heineken Cup, all is sweet in the egg-shaped planet.

Well, forgive me for being a grumpy old man in training but I don’t really care that Leinster did to Cardiff what the Harlem Globetrotters usually do to their reserve opposition team. I don’t even particularly care that Munster are out.

After many seasons in its thrall, I’m beginning to doubt the accepted wisdom that “the Heineken Cup is where it’s at”.

Increasingly, it appears more like fools gold; a comfort zone for our elite players.

Irish teams have won four of the past six Heinekens, but does this reflect the true health of the game at home?

The reality is that our talent is concentrated in three – until recently, two – teams. And where we are weak – the front row especially and out wide – we buy quality in the form of BJ Botha, Wian du Preez, Heinke van der Merwe, John Afoa and flying wingers like Isa Nacewa.

The opposition in England and France face our teams in the European Cup having played a greater amount of games in their domestic leagues, which are far more physically demanding than the Rabo.

In Wales, their talent is spread more thinly but at international level – which, we seem to forget is a step up – they prove how much our Heineken Cups are really worth.

Indeed, a Welsh team has never won the Heineken Cup – none of their teams has even got to the final since Cardiff in 1996. Yet they’ve won three Grand Slams in eight seasons.

We’ve managed one in that time.

“Ah,” say the wise men, “that’s down to Graham Henry and particularly Warren Gatland’s excellent management. If Joe Schmidt was in charge of Ireland we’d play a more expansive, cutting game, just like Leinster.”

Well, I simply don’t believe that a combination of Jon Sexton, Luke Fitzgerald and Brian O’Driscoll would carve up a Wales defence like they did to Cardiff on Saturday.

Wales are stronger than Cardiff, whereas Leinster, with the addition of Nacewa, have a superior backline to Ireland.

And let’s not forget what happened the last time Ireland appointed a coach who enjoyed Heineken Cup success. Declan Kidney, who possesses a razor sharp rugby brain no matter what you’ve read these past few months, came in and won a Grand Slam.

Then Ireland reverted to a win-ratio no better than we had under the much-criticised Eddie O’Sullivan.

The uncomfortable truth is that Heineken Cup success is no great indicator of what’s going to happen at international level.

How many times have we entered a Six Nations campaign off the back of barnstorming Munster and Leinster form, only for the golden generation to suddenly lose their golden touch in a green shirt?

It’s time we took the Heineken Cup for what it is: a hugely exciting cup competition that can help us develop a better Ireland side. Instead, success has borne complacency rather than confidence at international level.

If pushed, you could make an argument that provincial allegiances have affected the unity of the Ireland squad.

Despite all the soundbites to the contrary, some Munster and Leinster players do not really seem to like each other.

It’s calmed down a bit now, but the amount of sledging that went on when they played is beyond trying to gain a competitive edge.

Also, some of the perpetrators rarely seem to feel the need to sledge so much in other games – for club or country.

The amount of time and emotion invested with the provinces, and the success they have earned compared to the international team, makes us almost redolent of a GAA county that has a particularly cut-throat club scene because they don’t really expect to compete for Sam Maguire.

If – even though it’s looking like when – an Irish team wins the 2012 Heineken Cup it will be a tremendous achievement that we can build on, not an end in itself.

International rugby is where it’s at.

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Ronan Early
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Ronan Early is Sports Editor and columnist with The Irish Post. Follow him on Twitter @RonanEarly

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