Loose Pass: Ireland’s rude health, support for Wayne Smith and a limp finish to the Premiership season

Lawrence Nolan
Loose Pass

This week we will mostly be concerning ourselves with Ireland’s rude health, Wayne Smith’s disillusionment and the limp finish to the Premiership…

Tale of the tapes

It has often been the case down the more recent couple of decades that many would try to use domestic form as a bellwether for international form. It has almost equally often proven to be the case that the two are almost entirely unrelated, with perhaps the exception of one or two outstanding club sides.

But as the Rugby World Cup nears, you’d be hard-pushed to find a country where, from top to bottom, the game is in such rude health as Ireland.

France perhaps, but the significantly deeper pockets of the clubs absolutely helps there – not least the assistance of the towns and municipalities in running and administrating the local stadia. England’s domestic game is having a sort of closing-scene-in-The-Italian-Job moment, with no end of administrators queueing up to say things like “Don’t worry lads, I’ll think of something,” while the dreams of gold bullion remain tantalisingly out of reach. Welsh domestic rugby is in turmoil. South Africa’s teams may be performing well in the United Rugby Championship (URC) and Europe, but the Currie Cup has become a matter of supreme irrelevance. New Zealand’s teams look stale at times (more on that in a moment) and in both South Africa and New Zealand, club rugby has dwindled horribly. The revelation given to Loose Pass this week that Stellenbosch University, once the world’s biggest club, is putting out fewer than half the teams it did pre-pandemic was startling.

And then there’s Ireland. The pockets are not especially deep, the playing stocks not especially numerous. And yes, there’s been a few imports. But with three out of four of the URC semi-finalists coming from Ireland (the other Irish team was knocked out by a domestic counterpart), Europe’s premier team by a country mile also coming from Ireland and the national team well worth the tag of favourites for the looming World Cup, along with flourishing provincial club leagues, Ireland seem to have got it right.

Stuart Lancaster reacted with some indignance when it was mentioned by his Leicester counterpart Richard Wigglesworth that Leinster have deeper pockets than others. With much justification too; the central contracts help but he also made the very relevant point that most of the Leinster first team has come through the development pathways. If it’s been easier to retain them, well, that surely has to be a good thing? What team would not want to retain all its brightest stars if it could, who could rightfully begrudge a team doing so, having put in the groundwork to develop them.

But it is not just Leinster. All four provinces have unearthed gems over the past four years alone, all but guaranteeing Ireland will be just as good as now even when a current crop of internationals maybe about to retire. That speaks volumes for the efforts of clubs, provinces and national union in creating coherent, fair and solidly-financed pathways and professional entities.

As New Zealand did for a while, it would appear Ireland have a blueprint to be at least imitated, if not full-on emulated, by the rest of the home nations.

Why we should worry about Wayne

Loose Pass was once fortunate enough to get a 45-minute dose of one-on-one time with Wayne Smith, during which he spent about 44 minutes as an agog listener. Ideas, creativity, variations, new concepts tumbled forth from Smith’s active mind. It would be a rare day indeed when you would come away from a rugby chat with him without having something innovative to chew on.

So when he says he is unhappy with the direction the modern game is going, we should listen. His revelation that he had turned off a game because of the incessant advantages and interruptions, not to mention the endless same-same tactics echoes at least five occasions this season when Loose Pass has done similar. If his proffered solutions this time were a little wide of the mark, his identification of the staleness of some of the tactical thinking was not.

Not with a bang

Thing is, the Premiership this season was, for a long time, highly entertaining. But it petered out horribly, to the extent that the only jeopardy going on the last day was the race to finish eighth in an eleven-team league and thus qualify for Europe. Woo.

How many teams will it actually be next year? London Irish were late with wages, a sure sign that something is amiss even though subsequent noises have been reassuring. Newcastle continue to shed top assets at an unsustainable rate. The Premiership semi-finals have an uncomfortable air of predictability around them and English teams have, despite a healthy presence in the quarter-finals, hardly set the world on fire.

The Premiership itself is set to be superseded by both its French counterpart and the URC, which leaves English rugby in a deeply uncomfortable position.

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