Rugby Union Commentary: Red meat but no green line

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The Independent Online
IF THE gift of the gab could solve the problems of Irish rugby, there would be no problem. The Irish are great talkers and, in Limerick anyway, seem to talk about nothing else.

In Dublin yesterday the Ireland squad and their coach, Gerry Murphy, began their session by talking frankly and openly about their problems (many) and priorities (unclear). They have not won a championship match in nearly three years.

Time, then, for some straight talking and, as one pundit at Saturday's All-Ireland League First Division cliffhanger between Garryowen and Constitution put it: 'Gerry is the first Irish coach who is telling the truth.'

That does not make the truth any more palatable and, however essential, this is a cheerless process. Irish rugby needs to run hard to catch up but all the while the rest, already ahead, are running even harder.

Thus the place of Irish rugby in world rugby, to which the loquacious manager, Noel Murphy, movingly referred after Ireland had nearly beaten New Zealand in the first Test last summer, will become a load of blarney if the present course continues.

If there is light, it is provided by some of the clubs. To take the Limerick example, Constitution came up from Cork and beat Garryowen 20-18 at Dooradoyle: a rousing encounter which showed the Irish at their impassioned best and worst. If only passion any longer sufficed . . .

This game meant something - a lot, in fact, as it took Constitution to the top of the table - but the impression exists hereabouts that playing for Ireland can mean less. Welshmen with fairly recent memories will know the feeling.

Rugby at Dooradoyle, anywhere in Limerick for that matter, is an event. Big crowds reflect the league's popularity. The clubhouse is packed. In Limerick top rugby players are celebrities, the sort who could these days parade their 'amateur' talents in 'non- rugby-related' activities for reward.

They can take the money, but can they take a joke? 'I reckon we could set up a fund for senior Irish rugby whereby players can get paid,' Mick Doyle, former coach and captain, told the Garryowen pre-match lunch, 'because both the training and the playing are basically non-rugby-related.' It was a typically waspish remark, evidence of the palpable lack of confidence in the administration on the game here.

There is a divide between the various arms of Irish rugby which is having a debilitating effect. In effect the Irish are serving three masters. A realistic attempt to integrate club, provincial and international rugby - the Andy Leslie plan - has been rejected in favour of a perpetuation of the present, hopelessly fragmented timetable.

Leslie is a former New Zealand captain who spent the first half of the season attached to the Irish Rugby Union drawing up his scheme to accommodate an enlarged All-Ireland league, an enlarged provincial championship (with the Scots) and the Five Nations. It seemed so obvious: play the league in the first part of the season, then move up to the provincials, playing them before and in between the internationals.

Perfect? Not quite. The rejoinder from the powers-that-be is a mix-and-match much as before, only more so. Poor Ireland. When Garryowen played Constitution there was no shortage of talent, no shortage of effort. But that talent and effort are being dissipated instead of focused. If people play as if it is more important to win for Garryowen than Ireland, that is ridiculous and calamitous.

Constitution now lead by a point from Young Munster, another Limerick club whose friendly match on Saturday was notable because Neil Francis played for Monkstown at the request of the Ireland selectors. His own club, Blackrock, had dropped him to their second team on fitness grounds even though he had been on the Irish bench against Scotland three weeks ago. See what I mean?

The league is the big thing in these parts, so much so that my rugby-obsessed taxi-driver told me, between expletives, he hoped Ireland lost every match because that way more Limerickmen might make the side. It would be better, he added, to give up the green jersey of Ireland for the red of Munster.

Murray Kidd, the New Zealander about to conclude a three- year term coaching Garryowen, said that his side lost the game more than Constitution had won it. He even suggested Garryowen, who were last season's champions, were now favourites for the single relegation place because their final two league fixtures were derbies against Young Munster and Shannon.

Given Garryowen's three-point lead over Shannon, this is surely too gloomy but Kidd was right to note that his injury-ravaged side panicked under the pressure that came from leading (they have not been used to it this season) and that, in a league programme of only eight games, avoiding defeat is considerably more important than going out there and winning. 'It does make for fairly negative rugby,' he said.

In fact, Garryowen's problem was that they avoided the Irish stereotype and tried to handle their way out of trouble. Of garryowens, there were very few. Having built an 18-3 lead through half-a-dozen Kenny Smith penalties to one by Kenny Murphy, they consistently failed to clear their lines as the margin was steadily reduced.

The Garryowen defence went one way when Michael Bradley, the Ireland captain, switched play the other way from a tap penalty to create a try for Brian Walsh, and regular penalties by Murphy sustained the fightback until he deliriously landed the winning kick in the last minute.

As a result, the title effectively lies between Constitution, Young Munster and St Mary's, who trounced Greystones in Dublin. And if you were to listen to some people at Dooradoyle, not to mention in Willie Sexton's Bar much later, the upshot of that triple-header would be more important in Limerick (and certainly less predictable) than Ireland v France in three weeks' time.

Garryowen: Penalties Smith 6. Constitution: Try Walsh; Penalties K Murphy 5.

Garryowen: K Smith; R Wallace, P Danaher, D O'Driscoll, G Quilligan; D Larkin (capt), I Barry; J Giltenane, P Cunningham, K Ronan, G Stanton, R Costello, P Hogan, P Coveney, D O'Sullivan.

Constitution: C Haly; K Murphy, C Murphy, B Walsh, N Murray; A Byrne, M Bradley; P Soden, C Twomey, P McCarthy, L Dinneen (capt), G Fulcher, P O'Hara, B Howell, D Corkery.

Referee: G Black (Dublin).

(Photograph omitted)