Welsh warning for Irish sides
August 31, 2010
Cardiff Blues boss Dai Young says his side no longer have any fear of facing Irish sides © Getty Images
Munster 33 - 17 Aironi Cardiff Blues 34 - 23 Edinburgh Benetton Treviso 34 - 28 Scarlets Connacht 40 - 17 Dragons Glasgow 22 - 19 Leinster Ulster 27 - 26 Ospreys
Last week's Magners League launch at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff was a commendably slick affair. Polished video presentations preceded various announcements regarding the continued expansion of the competition in terms of committee appointments, attendances, viewer-ship and participation with Italian sides Aironi and Treviso invited to dine at what was previously a Celts-only table.
Once the formalities were dispensed with, the party broke up into smaller groups as the various captains and coaches gave their thoughts on the forthcoming campaign. One never expects to hear anything too startling at these affairs as there is a reluctance to make bold pronouncements before a ball is kicked in anger.
Thus, the proliferation of stock phrases relating to the teams being "under no illusions" as to the "difficulty of the challenge" this season and the oft-repeated hope that they would be "there or thereabouts" when the wind-up to the play-offs begins next spring.
Amid this sea of caution, it was left to Cardiff Blues coach Dai Young to provide the most enlightening observation and one that has raised a red flag for Irish rugby supporters.
The Blues have been growing in power over the past number of seasons and are considered genuine contenders to depose Welsh rivals the Ospreys as league champions. And, in Young, they have a capable, pragmatic figure at the helm so when the former Wales and Lions prop offered the opinion that there has been a switch in the balance of power from Ireland to Wales it demanded respect.
"We have a confidence about us now, when we go over to Ireland, that we didn't used to have," noted Young. "Up until last season, going to Ulster was always a formidable task and something that we got little joy out of, but we have won there the last two seasons. We have also won at Munster a few times and we have always pushed Leinster close. So I think that pedestal we have placed them on in the last couple of years probably isn't there now."
Through a combination of injuries and the removal of Ireland's top internationals for significant chunks of the league campaign under the World Cup 2011 player management programme, the challenge facing the Irish provinces, particularly Leinster and Munster, is daunting.
Ulster will be less affected by the need to rest international players and have also had the most productive summer in terms of recruitment with the acquisition of Ruan Pienaar, Johann Muller and Pedrie Wannenburg adding to their existing quota of South African-hewn heft in the form of No.8 Robbie Diack and prop BJ Botha (although the tight-head is being targeted for an early return to South Africa by the ambitious Golden Lions franchise).
Ireland manager Paul McNaughton last week outlined a change in approach regarding player availability with Ireland's front-liners free to play in the early rounds of the Magners League as opposed to last season when their reintroduction was delayed by up to a month.
It is a difficult situation to manage for Munster's Australian coach Tony McGahan and New Zealander Joe Schmidt in his first season as Michael Cheika's successor at Leinster. Though the earlier access to their Ireland stars is a welcome boost on the surface, these players have been on a different pre-season programme to their provincial team-mates so their reintroduction is not a straightforward process.
Furthermore, both Leinster and Munster will be without their second-row captains for the first phase of the competition as Leo Cullen and Paul O'Connell battle their way back from shoulder and groin injuries respectively.
Leinster are furthered hampered by long-term injuries to flanker Kevin McLaughlin and prop Stan Wright and, while they have decent back-row options with the return to fitness and form of Sean O'Brien and several talented Academy players, Wright's injury has left them perilously short in the front-row.
The glass half-full scenario acknowledges that both provinces still have powerful squads including a clutch of talented younger players who will now be afforded the opportunity for greater exposure - good news for Ireland coach Declan Kidney.
But it still places them on the back foot vis-à-vis Magners rivals who do not have to operate under the same restrictions and the likes of the Blues, Ospreys and Glasgow Warriors are sniffing blood. The opening weekends will be revealing with Leinster travelling to Glasgow followed by a home assignment against the Blues while Munster take on Aironi's powerful forwards at home before they face Edinburgh, joint flag bearers in Scottish rugby's recent revival, in Murrayfield.
Ulster's opening assignments are no less challenging, hosting Ospreys in Ravenhill and then taking on Aironi in the Stadio Luigi Rafaela - a venue the Italians are determined to make as inhospitable as possible.
And Connacht? Although they will not come under anything like the same influence of the Player Management Scheme as the other provinces, their sparse squad has already been ravaged by injury and they are understandably placing enormous importance on a good start against the Dragons at the Sportsground - where the Welsh outfit have not won since 2004.
There are moves afoot at IRFU level to work out a viable future for Connacht rugby which hopefully will see them established as a proper development province for young Irish-qualified players who cannot get regular game time elsewhere. However, for now, operating under one-year contracts, it looks like another tough year for Eric Elwood's men.
Young would be unwise write off the power of the Irish provinces given Leinster and Munster's position at the pinnacle of European rugby over the last few seasons and Ulster's apparent rejuvenation but the challenges are considerable. One thing is certain, the fear factor has gone.
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