Weary Leinster and Munster stars ready for final Lions auditions
We enter the realm of trying not to repeat ourselves. Rugby fatigue will evaporate come kick off at the RDS on Saturday but nobody could possibly stomach another root and branch analysis of Munster shortcomings. Or more about Leinster holding the Indian sign over them.
The collapse of the Rainbow Cup hardly comes as a surprise. It never sounded like a good idea. In theory, sure, but in reality the ‘what if’s’ were endless. We know the Bulls, Stormers et al are marching north and the Springboks will inevitably follow, but this summer was always going to be a stretch.
The South Africans craved the competition so they can be primed for the Lions Test series.
So, there goes another loose plan.
This being their fifth meeting since August, Leinster versus Munster reminds me of Rocky V. Not the one where Dolph Lundgren kills Apollo Creed. The next one where ‘Rock’ appears to be suffering from early onset dementia or CTE – “the effects are irreversible” says the neurologist – but fight on he must after Paulie gambles away millions of dollars.
After failing the Head Injury Assessment and return to play protocols, Rocky challenges Tommy Gunn to a brawl in an alley. The street fight provides an entertaining crescendo to the film but, with next to nothing on the line, nobody is going to remember who hit who.
It is, however, an ideal spectacle for my old coach Warren Gatland. The Lions squad permutations temporarily halt a moan about the Leinster v Munster franchise’s falling from a crammed Croker (Rocky II) to an empty Ballsbridge.
But just like 2009, the players will not lack for motivation.
Here’s what we think we know. Robbie Henshaw and Tadhg Furlong are touring South Africa in June/July. There is a spot for James Ryan, if he recovers from concussions. If not, Iain Henderson will go. Both may end up making the cut alongside Alun Wyn Jones and Maro Itoje.
Conor Murray is another certainty, mainly because Danny Care appears to be his main competition. Johnny Sexton’s chances are up in the air. Gatland cannot forget how Johnny picked apart the All Blacks in 2017, and those short side raids against Exeter were a timely reminder how he can manipulate the best defences. Still, the risk of taking such a brittle outhalf must be a constant debate among the selectors.
As a bolter, Joey Carbery would need to light the RDS up on Saturday. He knows that Leinster is the worst place to come when you are trying to prove a point. They are experts at neutralising threats, like Tadhg Beirne over the ball and Carbery in the Pro 14, so this is the only opportunity to prove he is a better touring option than Finn Russell.
I’d say Rassie Erasmus would be happy with Russell at 10 on the High Veldt. Or Sexton for that matter. Owen Farrell is the favourite and perhaps Marcus Smith’s face might fit better than George Ford.
For the Munster pair, Saturday is the last chance at the ultimate career send off
Gregor Townsend will have a big say.
I see no Irish backrowers in the red jersey. Not with Sam Simmonds forcing his way into the reckoning alongside Toby Faletau, Billy Vunipola, Tom Curry, Sam Underhill, Justin Tipuric, Ben Earls and with the Scottish pair Jamie Ritchie and Hamish Watson playing so well.
Unless something happens in the latest Rocky movie, Caelan Doris is behind the eight ball after concussion wiped out his Six Nations. Jack Conan, Josh van der Flier, Rhys Ruddock, Peter O’Mahony and CJ Stander all have an opportunity to storm past their rivals.
For the Munster pair, Saturday is the last chance at the ultimate career send off. Same goes for Cian Healy but Andrew Porter’s versatility and youth might get him the nod over Cian.
All of them are the Tommy Gunn character lobbing bombs in the alleyway.
Garry Ringrose was a decent shout to tour in 2017 but Gatland went with Jonathan Davies while also bringing two Kiwis in Ben Te’o and Jared Payne. Ringrose was high up the list of potential Lions until his latest season-interrupting injury.
Henry Slade and Henshaw or a fully fit Manu Tuilagi are serious partnerships, so Ringrose probably needs to feature against La Rochelle.
In the back three, Anthony Watson, Jonny May and Louis Rees-Zammit are the main contenders with Duhan van der Merwe bringing that Afrikaner physicality to put pressure on Jacob Stockdale – who was slick against Northampton – Hugo Keenan and Keith Earls to turn Gregor’s head. I worry that 50-50 calls will fall for Welsh and Scottish players.
If only Keenan and Earls had a high octane environment to show their wares. Who mentioned rugby fatigue? Ah sure, Rocky V is far better than Creed.
Who will take responsibility for women’s game in Ireland?
If your daughter is wondering about pathways and a desire to accelerate equality in our sport, you will need to tell her the truth. Nobody has abdicated responsibility for women’s rugby in the IRFU because nobody held it in the first place.
Watching our international rugby team, in the official green jersey, being shredded by the French at Donnybrook, while the two men who should not be responsible for the women’s game in Ireland looked on from the Bective-end, got me thinking about the character Major Major Major Major in Joseph Heller’s Catch 22.
“The job I have to do is tough enough without having to deal –all the time! – with a lot of people who want something, do I make myself clear?” goes Major Major as he climbs onto the windowsill of his office before adding: “Sergeant, from now on I do not want anyone to come in and see me while I am in my office, is that clear?”
Sergeant: “What do I say to people who want to come in and see you when you are in your office?”
Major Major: “Tell them I am in and ask them to wait.”
Sergeant: “For how long?”
Major Major: “Until I have left.”
Sergeant: “Then what do I do with them?”
Major Major (jumping out the window): “I don’t care.”
I guess the IRFU will be glad to see the back of the women’s Six Nations. The standalone April slot brings their plight to the forefront of our minds.
The fear now is people will grow accustomed to a holding pattern of heavy defeats to England and France softened by brave victories over Italy, Scotland and Wales.
The IRFU are understandably resisting any financial commitments but this mantra about growing the women’s game from the ground up cannot happen if there is nothing to aspire towards.
The Australians, David Nucifora and Anthony Eddy, were hired to run the professional game in Ireland, not create a professional structure for the women’s game to become professional. I’d be very surprised if it came up when Nucifora was interviewed for the position almost eight years ago. And if it did, the drop in standards, comparative with other rugby nations, would indicate a terrible job has been done.
Saturday’s heavy loss should force us to ask, over and over again: Who is willing to take full responsibility for the women’s game in Ireland?
History will show that the greatest period in the history of the men’s game – when our carefully created professional structures allowed Ireland to become the second best team in the world – also covers a pass-the-parcel treatment around our women’s game.
This 10-team AIL needs to happen as soon as health protocols allow, because after Italy plays Ireland at Donnybrook this Saturday there will be no way of seeing the players. We also need to see the provinces hosting and touring English and French clubs (until a proper club competition exists).
It goes quiet next week as everyone moves onto the Lions and other hot topics, like the enormous financial challenges facing a sporting organisation that has been a model of prudence in good times.
The players are doing everything they can but I know what happened after Ireland nose dived out of the 1999 and 2007 World Cups. The reaction was immediate yet sustained. The driving force, to correct flaws in the system, was financial but everyone agreed that it was unacceptable for the Irish rugby team to fail so badly.
The reputational damage to the IRFU when one of their teams ships 56 points is also immediate. When the men were this far off the pace the supporters refused to accept poor structural standards. Some special players, coaches and administrators turned the tide.
Do we still believe it is acceptable to be gender specific rugby fans of the Ireland team?
We are either in this together or we can just keep jumping out the window.