David Flatman: It's no surprise the Irish sides keep winning
O'Driscoll and Co are exposed to highest pressure but they enjoy decent rest and quality training too
Sunday 11 December 2011
This afternoon we at Bath take on mighty Leinster, the reigning Heineken Cup champions. The truth is that we have not quite hit our straps over the past few weeks so, despite being on our own patch, we go into the game as underdogs. Certainly I would expect the bookmakers to offer us relatively slim odds.
Such is the recent Irish dominance in European competition, these odds would be similar even if we were on top form. Leinster and Munster have become the new European rugby superpowers.
The reason the French teams did well was – and is – often put down to cash alone, and there is some mileage in this most basic theory. Their budgets are enormous and, consequently, their squads are flooded with high-end international players. One goes off, another comes on. This is tough to beat.
But the Irish provinces seem to thrive for different reasons and this, I think, is because they are set up to peak for the Heineken Cup. The Pro12 is a good competition littered with top-class players, but many of them don't play that often.
Leading into a big European match or even an international, the starting line-ups will be less glitzy. Squad players clock on to put a shift in while the main men are wrapped in cotton wool for the upcoming must-win clash.
The lucky buggers. You see, while we are scrapping week in, week out for Premiership points that, hopefully,will see us qualify for the Heineken Cup, the likes of Leinster and Munster are all but guaranteed a place. There is also no relegation from the Pro12 so, while I do not doubt for a millisecond that these guys give everything they have to the cause, it just doesn't matter as much if they lose the odd league match. All this means that they arrive fresh and firing when the big days – like today – come around.
Significant cash has been injected into the Irish game – although not on the apparently unsustainable level as the French – and the benefits are plain to see, with four Heineken Cup wins in six seasons.
They have hung on to key players such as Brian O'Driscoll and Paul O'Connell when, presumably, there must have been some huge offers on the table from elsewhere. This does not suggest that the only reason they stayed is financial, of course, but very, very few professionals would turn down massive contracts for peanuts purely through loyalty, however unromantic this may seem.
So the Irish game's player retention is in excellent shape and so is its recruitment, which I believe has huge ramifications for the national side.
Unlike our Premiership, the Pro12 is not awash with foreign players. Those who are there are carefully selected and of the highest quality. Doug Howlett gave Munster immediate added value on a consistent basis. BJ Botha was so effective for Ulster that the suits down the road at Munster dug deep and persuaded him to cross the divide.
The thing to remember is that, with only four teams, there is only room for four players in each position. This means that every imported player takes the spot of a potential Irish international.
The Irish coaches simply have less choice, but this is not necessarily a bad thing. As we have seen in New Zealand over the generations, a smaller pool of players forces the coaches to develop what they have right from the start.
The one-bad-game-and-you're-out school of selection just could not work in Ireland. So the men deemed good enough to play invariably accrue caps at quite a rate, as well as all the experience that comes with it.
This higher likelihood of exposure to high-pressure, high-stakes rugby with a good amount of rest and quality training in between undoubtedly makes players more likely to perform at the right times.
This is not, I assure you, old-fashioned excuse making. I love to watch these teams play and admire them greatly. And I would never want to trade my place in the war zone that is the Premiership for anything.
Circumstances simply dictate that, when it comes to weekends like this, some teams have the time to prepare more perfectly than others. We Prem-dwellers have no gripe with this. The only gripe we have is with these darned bookies; never write off an underdog.
Bath v Leinster is on Sky Sports 2 today, kick-off 12.45pm
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