Unless you took a three-day trip to Mars last Friday evening, you will have noticed that Ulster and Leinster combined to paint this continent green over the weekend. By resisting the considerable challenges of Edinburgh and Clermont Auvergne, these two Irish provinces have now scheduled an enthralling party at Twickenham in two and a half week’s time, where a capacity crowd of 80,000 will witness a tumultuous tussle to decide the fate of the Heineken Cup.
Undoubtedly, both sides are worthy finalists. Leinster’s phenomenal try-line defence in Bordeaux on Sunday was an apt summation of their campaign – they have been irresistible. As defending champions, chasing a third crown in four seasons, the Dubliners were just meant to win. The forwards, driven by Cian Healy and Leo Cullen, were ferocious. Brian O’Driscoll is back to his talismanic best, defying creaking bones to deliver dexterity and physicality in equal measure. At full-back, Rob Kearney is truly peerless.
Ulster will prove worthy opponents. The competition’s perennial also-rans have finally, muscularly exorcised the spectre of 1999 – their only previous tournament victory – and, if only on the basis of their awesome 41-7 dismantling of Leicester Tigers at Ravenhill back in January, deserve a bite at glory. Stephen Ferris, the mountainous, marauding blindside, has personified the wholehearted passion of this fantastic club throughout and will lead the charge.
However, though May 19 will see a Guinness-fuelled extravaganza at HQ, filled with singing, dancing and – somewhere in the middle – fiercely-fought rugby, there is an ominously dark cloud spreading West of the Irish Sea. Despite the country’s justifiable pride in their monopoly on the final, there is also a subverted sense of trepidation. Thanks to the IRFU’s December proposal to restrict foreign squad members, things may never be the same again.
From the 2013-4 season, a limit of 15 overseas players – one per position – will be shared between Leinster, Munster and Ulster (Connacht have a separate agreement in place) with no province able to retain more than five. The bare facts of the policy, while heavy-handed, are simple. The connotations are not.
For a start, the IRFU has manufactured an awkward amount of arbitration for itself. Contract scrambling is sure to create chaos next season and uneasy negotiations between this trio of rugby giants will be necessary. Because Ruan Pieenar has committed to his future to Ravenhill until June 2014, for example, neither Leinster nor Munster can sign a scrum-half from abroad. If long-term injuries to any of their frontline nines ensue, the situation could get messy.
Indeed, for both pros and cons of this change, Ulster are a good model to explore. Their Springbok spine – from Stefan Terblanche at full-back, through Pienaar to Johaan Muller and Pedrie Wannenburg up front – has been extremely influential. So influential, in fact, that they were responsible for all 22 points that clinched Saturday’s win over Edinburgh.
Crucially though, thanks to John Afoa’s suspension, every member of the starting XV apart from that quartet was home-grown. Such a statistic compares favourably against the fact that Saracens – the last English club in the Heineken Cup draw – began their loss to Clermont with an American, a Welshman and three South Africans in tow (as well as adopted ‘Englishmen’ Matt Stevens, Mouritz Botha and Brad Barritt). In short, the Belfast boys are creating something sustainable, where seasoned internationals are showing local heroes the way, guiding them in crunch clashes. For Ulster, the implementation of the new guidelines would not, I believe, change too much. Not everyone is convinced, of course.
Speaking to the Irish Independent this week, Shane Horgan did not perch anywhere near a fence. He called the scheme “ridiculous,” “unworkable” and, most damningly, “a diktat,” before urging Leinster, his former club, to keep hold of fabulous Fijian utility back Isa Nacewa. Having won 69 caps over a nine-year international career, Horgan’s opinion holds considerable sway. Then again, he might be missing the key point.
The IRFU’s priority should, quite obviously, be the success of Ireland as a team, with an unapologetic emphasis on results. For one reason or another, that has not been achieved of late. An ignominious exit to Wales at the quarter-final stage of the World Cup last autumn has now been compounded by an average Six Nations and something has to give. Although the sight of Declan Kidney’s props being cleaved in twain by Dan Cole and friends at a rainy Twickenham in March was nothing to do with the fact that Munster regularly employ Wian du Preez and BJ Botha in the front-row, thrusting young natives into the limelight, eventually, will bolster the men in green.
A thought to finish. Horgan, along with O’Driscoll, Gordon D’Arcy, Paul O’Connell, Peter Stringer, Ronan O’Gara and a few more, was a key cog in Ireland’s golden generation. In European club rugby, these players have delivered – on May 19, either Leinster or Ulster will become the fifth Irish winner of the Heineken Cup since 2006. However, the international return is far bleaker. In the same period, a solitary Grand Slam in 2009 stands up against stumbling Six Nations campaigns and two very forgettable attempts to capture the Webb Ellis trophy.
The IRFU will be hounded if Heineken Cup triumphs dry up in the future, but many will forgive and forget if Ireland regularly find their way to silverware. In any case, for the next two and a half weeks at least, we should bask in the achievement of Ulster and Leinster. For them, there is no time like the present.