Should one of the provinces lose, it’s quickly forgotten. Should they win, the reflex reaction is little different. At the weekend another round of games went by, the never-ending nature of the competition almost baseball-like. The Ospreys beat Munster. Connacht drew with Cardiff. What that meant to the table? Not sure. Who’s leading the Magners League? Don’t care. And that’s fine. We like it that way. It fills the void between Heineken Cup games, giving obsessives and addicts something to do. Keeps the players playing and unearths new talent as well. The problem now however, is that a poor undercard is about to become the main event.
The plug has been pulled on the Heineken Cup and the lights have gone out. Why this has happened is complicated and in truth a little boring. So we’ll keep it short. Premier Rugby and La Ligue Nationale de Rugby are the organizations that run and account for the English Premiership and the French First Division clubs. The former claim an agreement was reached with the English RFU in October 2005, giving them half the English share of voting rights in the ERC. The RFU deny this and therefore refused, angering Premier Rugby and La Ligue Nationale de Rugby who ultimately withdrew their clubs from the greatest club rugby competition on Earth. Still awake?
The Celtic nations are no doubt fuming. Not only have they been left high and dry for the coming season in terms of both finances and more importantly interest but the way the boycott was carried out has meant they have been shot in the back. The English clubs would not have walked away without the support of the French and the same applies the other way around. Both groups obviously agreed deals in the background and the move is treacherous at best. “There is not a chance of us giving up any shares to PRL,” said Martyn Thomas, chairman of the RFU, this week. “How could you allow people who behave like this to hold shares in the Heineken Cup?”
Thomas is right but it will not worry clubs in either England or France.
Both have successful and highly-popular national leagues and will easily get
by without the Heineken Cup. However that is not the case in Ireland, Scotland or Wales. “It will certainly cause a problem for the players here,” stated the Irish Rugby Union Players’ Association chief executive, Niall Woods. “Not only in the playing side of things in losing out on competitive games, but monetarily as well. Nearly every player’s contract has a bonus scheme built into the Heineken Cup and the Challenge Cup and this would affect those on the lower end of the scale just as much if not more. It might not be too bad for one year, especially in a World Cup year, but from a playing perspective, players would be denied six, seven or eight matches a year to help make that step up to international rugby. In the long term it would be disastrous.”
A Scottish rugby statement was even more grave, stating that the future of the professional game there could be in jeopardy while the Welsh say they have plans in place to cope (these are likely to include the bulking up of the Anglo-Welsh Cup). But that should never have had to happen and the long-term affect this will have on European and Irish rugby has yet to be seen.
The Heineken Cup has been a roaring success since its inception and has allowed rugby to reach new peaks of popularity in Ireland. Numbers and interest in the game have increased dramatically and the energy and enthusiasm surrounding the sport is now likely to be lost. Magners League it is then. But for all our complaining, at least it’s sport for the sake of sport. That can no longer be said of the Heineken Cup
Galway fall well short
of boss’s expectations
Ger Loughnane was supposed to make things better. He’d brought a freshness to hurling in the mid-90s by making a desert fertile. Clare hadn’t won an All Ireland since 1914, but they quickly won two during his era. They didn’t tip-toe to those 1995 and ’97 successes either. Instead they hit hard, scored hard, kicked down doors and made some noise. Everyone thought he could do something similar with Galway. After all, he is regarded as one of the greatest managers of all time and he was heading to a county that had been spitting out minor and under-21 champions ad nauseum.
He clearly thought he could do something special as well. When he arrived
for his first press conference late last year, the temperature was already
hot. Soon steam was rising. Loughnane declared that if Galway didn’t win an
All Ireland this time around, it and he would be a failure. Plain and simple. So far, it’s been a failure and we haven’t got anywhere near an All Ireland. First there was the county final debacle. Loughrea took lumps out of Athenry, players and selectors threatened to quit and in the end there was no Joe Canning involved with Galway for the foreseeable future. And then there was the National League.
It came to an abrupt end for Galway on Sunday, but truth be told, they’d been slowing all along. They escaped the post mortem after losing to Dublin, with all eyes instead glaring at a renaissance of hurling in the capital. However subsequent results showed that was never the case. And then there was the quarter-final against Wexford on Sunday. Only one winner we thought, and for Galway it was a must win. With their ignorant refusal of numerous offers to play in the Leinster Championship, they are a county that needs games. But after losing 1-16 to 0-14 in Nowlan Park, they are now staring into a long and dark void.
“Not really surprised, no,” said Wexford manager John Meyler after the match, his attitude further emphasizing Galway’s placing on the elite ladder. “We had worked extremely hard on our fitness early on, since October, but the last few weeks we’ve come on a lot with the hurling. Our first few games showed that, but since then we’ve worked a lot more on the hurling aspect. Kilkenny and Cork are still the standard-bearers, but back in November we spoke about bringing the pride back into Wexford hurling, and playing with a bit of passion and fire and commitment. And that’s what they’re showing.”
Wexford now advance to play Kilkenny in the semi-final. Galway meanwhile can contemplate. They’ve plenty of time to as well. It’s nearly three months until their next competitive match. If you’re good you win all year round. That starts with the league and football’s secondary competition has become an increasingly accurate barometer of championship ambitions in recent seasons. This decade alone, the six titles have been split between Kerry, Armagh, Tyrone and Mayo. Those four have also dominated recent summers. But as the league drew to a climax at the weekend, there was added excitement. Not only were semi-final
positions still up for grabs, but with the restructuring of the competition to four divisions next season, places in all those groupings were to be decided as well.
The big losers? Dublin. Their defeat at home to Kerry ended an average
campaign, leaving them fifth in Division 1A and therefore heading for Division 2 next time round. “That was a game what we were in a position to get something out of and we were just piped at the post again,” said Dublin manager Paul Caffrey. Not a worry for this season but the drop in standard is likely to hurt his team come 2008.
That result meant Kerry will be in Division One next year along with Tyrone, Derry, Laois and the semi-finalists. Doubts still surrounded the final four this weekend with Mayo and Donegal the only sides secured of their places.
They were joined by Galway who beat Down and Kildare who earned a 0-15 to
1-12 draw against Laois in a packed Newbridge to deny their neighbors’ advancement. “It was a win in everything but name,” said a delighted Kildare manager John Crofton who has amazingly changed his sides fortunes this year.
“The goal gave them a bit of a buffer and it was a real dogfight. We seem to be getting the breaks this year though that we weren?t getting last year. I was conscious all the time that a draw would do us but the heart missed a few beats towards the end. We played with great composure and succeeded in getting a few interceptions in the half-back line towards the end.”
The semi-finals take place this Sunday with All Ireland front-runners
Donegal taking on Kildare while Mayo face Galway just three weeks before the two contest the opening round of the Connacht Championship.