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Irish rugby: Where the grass really is greener

TAKE two rugby-playing nations.

One has punched above its weight since the introduction in 2000 of the RBS 6 Nations Championship; the other has underperformed miserably.

Question: which one has set itself the target of winning next year's World Cup? Is it Scotland, who have never finished higher than third in the revamped tournament and usually vie with Italy for the wooden spoon? Or is it Ireland, with one grand slam and four triple crowns? Is it Scotland, with 18 wins from 72 matches, or Ireland with 47?

These questions are designed not to heap further ridicule on the Scottish Rugby Union, whose chief executive Mark Dodson has repeated that his organisation's aim is to win the 2015 World Cup. The target can be viewed in black and white in the union's strategic plan.

Dodson has already taken enough stick for that, so the purpose of making the comparison is to illustrate how Ireland, and the Irish RFU, go about their business in a much more measured, and clearly more successful, manner.

Nowhere in Ireland's strategic plan will you find a vainglorious reference to winning the World Cup. There is a stated aim to win the Six Nations once every four years but, given the way they have started this campaign, and performed in recent years, no-one could accuse the Irish of indulging in fantasy.

A Scot, Brian Porteous, has worked as a strategic consultant with the IRFU since 2003. Although he has a vested interest, Porteous believes it is excellent governance which has provided the platform for Ireland to do so well at club level - especially in the Heineken Cup - and on the international stage.

"The IRFU have worked very strategically since 2003 with a clear plan looking at all aspects of the game," said Porteous. "That means rugby is growing, and very significantly, in Ireland.

"This is happening despite major challenges, because rugby has to compete with other ball games in Ireland, including hurling and Gaelic football. In a very competitive environment they have also had to cope with the serious economic downturn in the country.

"Comparisons with Scotland are valid. The most important thing Ireland has done in terms of international performance is to make sense of how a relatively small country organises its resources to provide continuity of high-class players coming through to wear the green jersey.

"That's at the heart of Scotland's challenge too, although it's easier for Ireland because they have four professional teams, at least two of which are expected to do very well in the Heineken Cup every year.

"To get a world-class team in green jerseys you need to have a succession policy. Ireland has got a very good structure for age-group rugby and academies, and the IRFU is one of the best-managed governing bodies I have ever come across.

"That is not to say there are not tensions between the professional game and the grass-roots volunteers, as in other countries. But in Ireland they are facing up to these issues and trying to find ways to make things run even better. They make the best use of their professional and volunteer resources."

Like Scotland, the Irish now rely heavily on foreign coaches, both at national and provincial level. Porteous has no issue with that, insisting that part of their remit is to help develop home-bred coaches. The IRFU are also in the process of appointing a performance director to oversee the work of Joe Schmidt and the other coaches. This will further ensure everybody is marching to the same tune.

Again, it is impossible for outsiders not to contrast the manner in which Ireland are going about making this key appointment with the cosy arrangement which resulted in Scott Johnson being elevated to director of rugby in Scotland with no other candidate being interviewed.

While the SRU's Dodson is another relative newcomer to Scottish rugby, the Irish have a renowned safe pair of hands in Dubliner Philip Browne. He has been chief executive since 1998 and has helped steer Ireland from the amateur era to professionalism with an adroitness Scotland can only envy.

So why no World Cup aspiration in the IRFU strategic plan?

"It would be a hostage to fortune to set a specific target for a World Cup," Porteous points out. "The Six Nations is different because it provides most of Ireland's income. It is also a league, and so isn't subject to the same fickleness as a knock-out tournament.

"That said, there were very rigorous reviews of Ireland's performances in the last two World Cups, both with the players and coaches. Based on these, and getting the requisite luck, progressing beyond the quarter-finals of the World Cup seems a reasonable aspiration."

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