There was a lot of talk of Irish domination towards the end of the league phase of the Vodacom United Rugby Championship season but the events of the play-off stages of both that competition and the Heineken Champions Cup have changed the narrative.
And Leinster’s defeat in a pulsating and epic European final on their home ground in Dublin to LaRochelle, thus condemning a team that isn’t too far off being the Ireland national side in everything but name to another season without meaningful silverware, does introduce an interesting question around the impact on that nation’s momentum.
Of course, it is by no means clear cut that anything that has happened at club/provincial level over the past month will have any impact on Ireland’s confidence heading into the Rugby World Cup in France in a few months from now.
SOMETIMES IT MEANS SOMETHING AND SOMETIMES IT DOESN’T
The most famous example of a regional competition working for a World Cup challenge was the South African one in 2007. Having two teams in the Super 14 final that year was a huge boost for the Springboks, who were pretty much a combination of the two teams that played the Durban decider, the Sharks and Bulls.
After winning the World Cup final in Paris, several Bok players admitted that the successful Super 14 campaign had a significant impact. That was after all the first year that a South African team lifted the Super Rugby trophy, and New Zealand were left to count the cost of their decision to rest key players for much of the competition in preparation for what was to come later.
But while that is an example of the franchises helping the national cause by giving the build-up to the World Cup momentum, there are also plenty of examples where what comes before the World Cup ends at the next level below international rugby means diddly squat. South Africa didn’t feature strongly in the 2019 edition of Super Rugby, but won the sport’s Holy Grail in Japan later in the year.
Back in 2011 the Australian team, the Reds, won the Super 14, and indeed the Wallabies won the Tri-Nations that year too. But when it came to the RWC, the Wallabies were a spent force and were lucky to be helped through the quarterfinal stage by the Bryce Lawrence refereeing freak show.
Going much further back to 1995 and South Africa’s first World Cup triumph, the Transvaal team that wasn’t too dissimilar to what Leinster are now in the sense they were a shadow Bok team lost a Super 10 final, and in Johannesburg too, to the Reds. That was less than a month before the tournament opener between the Boks and Australia in Cape Town, which was comprehensively won by South Africa.
CONTEXT IS DIFFERENT TO 2007
The Bok example of 2007 also needs to be seen in context. The previous year had been a disaster, as the third year of a World Cup cycle so often is for the South Africans. So the Super 14 success built something off a low base.
Ireland aren’t operating off a low base. They convincingly won the Six Nations to install themselves as kings of Europe at international level, and last year they scored an historic series win in New Zealand and also cemented their world No 1 ranking by beating the World Cup champions at the Aviva Stadium in November.
It wasn’t as if the Irish needed a confidence boost from the URC or the HCC, for when they don the national jersey the players are reuniting with the colours that they associate with success.
However, given how everything seemed to be flowing for Ireland just a month ago, it is reasonable to see the possibility of them going without any trophy this year as a bit of a blip on their graph. At the end of April, there were three Irish teams in the top five of the URC, and four in the top seven.
FAILURE AT FINAL HURDLE INTRODUCES QUESTION MARKS OVER PSYCHE
Until Ulster lost to Connacht at the quarterfinal stage, the complete domination that would have been signified by two Irish teams contesting the final was a real possibility. As it was, there were three Irish teams in the final four, but Saturday’s Grand Final will be played on South African soil, with the DHL Stormers hosting Munster at Cape Town’s DHL Stadium.
Neither the Stormers nor Munster are shadow national teams like Leinster are. On that tack, LaRochelle, who have now won back to back Heineken Cups, are not a replica of the French team either. Toulouse, who went down to Leinster at the semifinal stage of the HCC have more French national players than LaRochelle do.
But given that the big question mark over Ireland has never been around their physical capabilities but about their ability to stare down the pressure of the intense three week play-off period that needs to be negotiated in order to win the Webb Ellis trophy, the fact Leinster and the Irish players in their team bottled it in a home final has to hurt. And it is the second successive year the same movie has been played.
It has to introduce question marks over their psyche, and the worm nudging them with doubt that the 2007 Bok World Cup winning captain John Smit spoke about in his role as a Supersport analyst before the Aviva game has to get bigger. If Ireland make the World Cup final, they will have fresh memories of being in a similar situation a few months previously that weren’t so good.
MUNSTER ARE AIMING FOR SOMETHING SPECIAL
That can be partly allayed if Peter O’Mahoney and the other Irish players in the Munster squad can be part of the special achievement of winning a URC final in South Africa, particularly given where Munster would have come from in order to pull it off. Forget the three away playoff games that it would have required, there’s also the fact that just before Christmas Munster were languishing in 14th place in the URC.
The Munster players have been in quasi play-off mode for months, not weeks. They do know how to stare down pressure. And they’ve produced a microcosm of the never-say-die nature of their campaign in individual games too, such as when they came back from a 19 point deficit to draw with the Sharks in Durban.
It’s not unrealistic to think that the ante has been lifted for them, with the entire nation now depending on them, for the final following Leinster’s demise, with Cape Town effectively being the Irish last chance saloon if Ireland’s domination of the club/franchise game is going to translate into anything meaningful.
WEATHER COULD GIVE VISITORS A LIFT
Six days out from the game it does look like they might get a bit of an outside lift, with the chances of rain for Cape Town on match day flittering between 60 and 70 per cent. And there should be a lot of rain in the buildup to turn the already tatty DHL Stadium surface into a quagmire too, with rain predicted for Wednesday and Thursday, and a lot of rain for Thursday if you look at the 100 per cent likelihood.
The surface already negates one of the biggest Stormers strengths, the scrum, and wet weather will further negate the potent attacking game they’ve become known for. Given conditions like we saw at the Aviva this past weekend, they’d start as clear favourites, as while Munster are the only team to have beaten them on their home ground since December 2021, the Stormers did conspire against themselves in that league game, which was played at the end of a demanding sequence of travel.
However, they know they are playing against a team that just doesn’t give up and which has come through fire to get to the final. And which may now also be carrying the extra responsibility and motivation of needing to regain some of the momentum and get back onto what not that long ago looked like an inexorable path to a strong World Cup challenge.
EUROPEAN FINAL RESULTS
Heineken Champions Cup Grand Final (Aviva Stadium, Dublin)
Leinster 26 LaRochelle 27
EPCR Challenge Cup (Aviva Stadium, Dublin)
Toulon 43 Glasgow Warriors 19