Life is an ongoing collection of fine margins. A few inches in a different direction at any time can alter circumstance beyond recognition. For the purpose of what’s about to roll out here, consider Munster’s eventual scaling of the European rugby mountain top.
Entities of lesser fortitude would have crumbled under some of the adversity they in the end surpassed. The width of a post denied them once, questionable actions by officialdom undid those in red more than once. Yet they kept coming back. Eventually, their deliverance did come down to inches – the few Peter Stringer managed to eek out to annex the game changer in the 2006 Heineken Cup Final.
Nothing lasts forever. So, eventually the unbeaten record at Thomond Park went and the good times dried up. Folk down south got an idea of what it was like for Leinster when the shoe was on the other foot. The appointment of Anthony Foley as coach had re-invigorated all of Munster rugby.
His untimely – and still scarcely believable – passing was always going to send things one way or the other for this group of players, and, by extension, their management. The performances they have put on in the interim have been part of the ongoing – and undoubtedly never-ending – legacy the Killaloe man left behind him.
Even that, though, is only part of a changing landscape within Irish rugby. Before Anthony’s death it’d been obvious his charges were in a better place than during what was a torrid 2015/16 campaign. However, seemingly in his memory they’ve taken matters to a whole new level.
Players like the Scannell brothers and John Ryan and Billy Holland and Jack O’Donoghue have emerged, established names have fronted up and – maybe most significantly – they now appear to have a strength in depth they would have looked at enviously in other places in recent times.
That is not to say the glory days are suddenly going to be parachuted back to the banks of the Shannon. Gut feeling is they remain short of the finished article but under the guidance of Johann Erasmus, Jerry Flannery and Felix Jones they are steadily going the right way and some of the rugby they have produced of late has not been dissimilar to that served up during the halcyon days of yore.
They will have noted though – as will many – that Leinster too appear to be building something special again. From a local perspective, it could justifiably be claimed that Devin Toner is to the very forefront of that. So much so that the Moynalvey man must be seriously in calculations for the Lions selectors. The merits or otherwise of that whole concept are another story, and one for a different day.
Jamie Heaslip’s longevity continues to astound, the return of Sean O’Brien is perhaps the greatest fillip of all, though demonstration of the breadth of resources currently available to Leo Cullen and his coaching staff must be running a close second in that regard.
Over the Christmas period, I was very fortunate to make another trip to Thomond Park in the company of my two brothers Des and Paul to see the two giants of Irish rugby collide. That the residents of the grand stadium have still never lost in my presence is neither here nor there. What really stood out – apart from the feed in Barack Obama Plaza on the way back – was the vast pools of talent currently available to both sides.
Some of the chief operators on both sides have already been flagged up. However, what was really evident was the talent there exists within the playing ranks of both teams. Some of the names have already been alluded to. Watching from the excellent disabled viewing area – one of several – at the Limerick venue, what really struck was the emergence of what might be titled the second wave.
For Munster, while Andrew Conway could scarcely be described as new, he certainly appears to have attained a new prominence this season as a utility back of considerable class. In a different context, similar comments can be attached to Ronan O’Mahony, as well as some of those pinpointed earlier.
As impressive as all that undoubtedly is, the evolution of the three time kingpins of the continent has been even more noteworthy. They too have a Ronan on the rise – O’Loughlin – while the continued burgeoning of promising talents such as James Treacy, Ross Byrne, Adam Byrne and Dan Leavy – not to mention the likes of Robbie Henshaw and Joey Carbery and Josh van der Fleer – cements their status as the strongest of the four Irish ‘clubs’.
In the case of the other two, the future appears far less sure footed. The age profile of the Ulster team is rising, while it’s astonishing that some class of position couldn’t have been adopted to keep Ruan Pienaar with the province. Thankfully, Munster appear to have instigated moves to retain the services of Jaco Taute and Tyler Bleyandaal.
The only downside to such moves is that they may require the offloading of the obviously talented but highly injury-prone Francis Saili. Looking into the west, things have to be considered far more uncertain. An apocalyptic injury situation would be difficult enough to absorb – especially given the resources of the western province comparative to the others.
However, the biggest blow of all could turn out to be the impending abdication of coach Pat Lam to Bristol. Among the fears germinated by his departure are feelings that some of the Galway-based team’s top performers may follow him. They’re not definitely doomed though.
Connacht play an expansive, attractive style of rugby and you’d expect the appointment of any new coach to reflect that. Indeed, that they have been able to compete with such gusto while afflicted with innumerable setbacks serves as the greatest indicator of how far they have come.
If things are handled properly they should still be in a good place going forward into the most exciting – and important – part of the season. The same could be said about Irish rugby in general.