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Rugby, it seems, has caught up with the rest of life. The licensed trade in particular has long known that being Irish is “cool” – hence Europe’s proliferation of faux-Hibernian bars. England, proliferating St George’s flags notwithstanding, has still to throw off Nick Hornby’s reflection that his peer group wanted to be anything but white, male, middle-class and southern English.
Those categories define the vast majority of the crowd who will gather fretfully at Twickenham on Saturday to watch England play South Africa. England have a recent record of played seven, lost seven, coach Andy Robinson is on the edge of the abyss and club-country tensions – in spite of yesterday’s concession by the clubs lifting restrictions on player involvement in the autumn programme – still rumble in the background.
It will feel very different tomorrow at Lansdowne Road as Ireland’s fans assemble for their penultimate trip to the venerable stadium fresh from victory over those same Springboks. Their coach is feeling confident enough to rest a number of first-choice players against Australia, Munster hold the Heineken Cup and an odd-numbered year in the Six Nations – generally held to favour the Irish – is approaching. Every prospect pleases and only a World Cup draw landing them with every established nation’s first-round nightmare – Argentina – is vile.
Is it really only three years, less a week, since England were parading the World Cup around Trafalgar Square to the acclamation of millions? And little over seven since Ireland completed the worst full decade – eight wins from 40 with only three of them in 20 matches in Dublin – by any country in Five Nations championship history? Indeed it is.
The professional game was not supposed to be like this. It was supposed to favour – and in World Cups it has – the larger, wealthier nations. England, France and Australia have contested the World Cup finals of the professional era. But England, with 10 times the population and more than seven times Ireland’s players, have lost their last three matches against the Irish.
One element is the happy accident of an outstanding generation of talent. Even as Ireland’s seniors were losing serially in the 1990s, their youth teams were progressing in junior World Cups. But generating talent is useless unless it is deployed properly. Here history, which owes Ireland plenty, has done it an immense favour.
Current conventional wisdom holds that the ideal structure for a rugby nation concentrates elite players in three or four teams immediately below national level. Australia, the great rising power of the past two decades, is the exemplar. But it is not enough to draw lines on a map – forced marriages and genetic mismatches in Wales and South Africa have mostly failed to generate either results or enthusiasm. The teams need an identity to enthuse both fans and players.
The Irish provinces, Munster and Ulster in particular, are ancient, deep-rooted and have deeply felt identities that long pre-date the invention of rugby. They were also the historic building blocks of the Irish Rugby Football Union, enabling the rapid assertion of union control when the new world of professional contracts arrived in the mid-1990s.
England has nothing like them. And, while the delusions of grandeur and paranoia over relegation of its leading clubs makes them an easy target, the problem goes back beyond that.
Clubs never did matter much in England. The route to advancement, both playing and administrative, was through the counties – diluting talent and generating structures peculiarly ill-
fitted to coping with the challenge of professionalism after 1995. Beset by debt incurred in rebuilding Twickenham and by grassroots insurgency, the Rugby Football Union ducked the challenges taken up by their Irish counterparts, and have been paying ever since.
World Cup victory in 2003 was secured by a happy combination of an outstanding group of players, a visionary coach and a rare outbreak of club-country peace.
The wheel will turn again and there is no point in blindly imitating the Irish structure. When England did have a divisional tournament, almost nobody cared. But getting it as right as the Irish will not be easy.