Allan Massie: Irish rugby’s journey a case of what might have been for Scotland

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Friday evening matches being not much good for a Saturday column, I can only hope that Glasgow will have beaten Ulster to reach next week’s final.

The one thing for sure is that there will be at least one Irish team in the final at Celtic Park. Leinster may have lost the European Champions Cup to Saracens, being outmuscled and outwitted eventually, and Ireland may have failed to retain the Six Nations title. Nevertheless, take the international and club games together, and you can’t deny that Irish rugby is currently top of the northern hemisphere. Indeed one might add that Saracens coach, Mark McCall, highly praised, even revered, by his players, and tipped by some to be Eddie Jones’ successor as England’s coach, is an Ulsterman from Bangor in County Down.

There have always been great Irish players of course. My memory goes back to Jackie Kyle, Ronnie Kavanagh and Tony O’Reilly in the fifties, Kyle being also the star of the side that won Ireland’s first Grand Slam in 1947-48, and there have been many very fine Ireland teams. The Irish contribution to the Lions has also been huge Kyle and O’Reilly were both stars of Lions tours. Mike Gibson, Willie-John McBride, Brian O’Driscoll and Paul O’Connell were among the greatest of Lions. There was indeed a time when it seemed as if the first qualification for the Lions’ captaincy was to be Irish.

Nevertheless in the last quarter of the last century the standard of Irish rugby was generally low. There were some great players and great days, notably Munster’s 1978 defeat of the All Blacks, and there were two Triple Crowns in the 198Os. But organisation was poor, the Inter-Provincial Championship badly supported. In the Five Nations, the Ireland team were rarely as fit as their opponents. It was generally believed that if you were level with Ireland after an hour you would win comfortably because the Irish pack would run out of steam. Few could doubt that in the 80s and the run-up to professionalism after the 1995 World Cup, rugby was in a far more healthy condition in Scotland than in Ireland. Nobody would say that now. Ireland managed the transition to professionalism better than we did. Ironically, you may think, they did just what Jim Telfer, as director of rugby at Murrayfield, wanted to do here. That’s to say, professional rugby was to be built on the already established Provincial structure – in Scotland the four Districts with clubs remaining at least nominally amateur. There was argument in both countries, but it was more bitter in Scotland.

The Irish had one advantage: that their provinces had a historic identity. This was lacking in Scotland even though the District championship had often been well supported; early in the 1990s I remember watching a championship decider between the South and Edinburgh at a packed, sold-out Netherdale. Strangely perhaps neither Edinburgh nor Glasgow Rugby had that identity, even though the annual Inter-City match was older than the Five Nations tournament. The South did have it, though the name was thought insufficiently attractive for a professional team.

Yet, despite having been the heartland of Scottish Rugby for at least the last 30 years, with the Border clubs contributing 11 of the 1984 Grand Slam-winning team and five or six of the 1990 one, professional rugby failed to establish itself in the Borders. Three reasons may be suggested. There had been strong support there for taking the Clubs rather than Districts route and too many club members had no interest in supporting the professional team established in Galashiels. Second, the population of the Borders was arguably too small to support a professional club. Third, in the allocation of players, the SRU seemed to favour Edinburgh rather than the Borders club. Even so when after stops and starts the second life of the Border Reivers was cut short, the team was still drawing bigger – if inadequate – crowds than Glasgow could.

In contrast Ireland built effectively on Provincial rugby. Ulster won the Heineken Cup in 1999 (a season when English clubs had boycotted it), but the real foundation of Ireland’s success was to be Munster’s Heineken campaigns and the huge home crowds and large travelling support these attracted. So now Irish professional rugby is much better supported than Scottish. Even the historically weakest province, Connacht (which admittedly the IRFU thought of closing down a few years back) regularly draws bigger crowds in Galway than Edinburgh in Scotland’s capital city.

Of course Ireland – or the Republic at least – is a richer country than Scotland, and the IRFU better-off than the SRU. Each of the provinces has its own well-funded academy, now bearing fruit. If in the 1980s we had a stronger structure than Ireland, ours is now weaker. The balance has shifted, and every year is more in Ireland’s favour. If by the time you read this Glasgow have beaten Ulster, and if they then go on to win the final against either Leinster or Munster, it will be a remarkable achievement, won against the odds.