Lights out on another European term but regions do offer flickers of hope
THE most miserable day of the year is supposed to be next Monday, as people grapple with the challenges of winter germs, January weather, cold dark nights and the arrival of unpaid credit card bills.
In Wales, there are invariably post-Heineken Cup blues to contend with as well, as the regions try to work out how their European campaigns unravelled.
This year, the rugby disappointment arrived early, with all four professional sides wiped off the European map in round five. For the second time in three seasons, there will be no Welsh team in the Heineken quarter-finals. Call for the coroner, let another inquest begin.
The first thing to say is another Welsh misadventure in cross-border competition doesn't just reflect badly on the regions.
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The Ospreys, Scarlets, Blues and Dragons are manifestations of Welsh rugby's health. And if some of them are displaying all the zip of a Marlboro Red addict with a hacking cough then that tells you much about the state of the game here.
There is an over-focus on the national team and a lack of funding compared with some of the leading European sides.
This year, yet again, we have had the ludicrous situation of players returning from an extended autumn series and going straight into important European games on the back of barely two training sessions.
You wonder how the regions ever signed up for such a nonsense.
In case anyone is any doubt, too, this term has shown that the salary cap is set too low at £3.5 million for the professional teams to be properly competitive. True, it reflects the state of the game in Wales, and the tough economic conditions, but with a cap at ankle level the regions are always going to struggle to boast squads that can operate on equal terms against the very best in European rugby.
And yet the Ospreys have shown in their campaign that there is still a modicum of hope.
They were desperately unfortunate not to beat Leicester, with Dan Biggar having more bad fortune in front of goal in one afternoon than he would expect to endure in an entire season.
But in defeat there was cause for Steve Tandy and his coaches to be encouraged.
Playing out of position at lock, James King put in 13 tackles, won six line-outs, made seven carries and achieved a key turnover; Justin Tipuric did so much in the first half you half expected him to man the mic during the interval and make the announcements; Eli Walker ran fast enough to be in danger of a speeding ticket; Ryan Bevington gave a passable impression of Gethin Jenkins circa 2005; Biggar defended manfully and did all he could to trigger the Ospreys.
The senior players also put in a shift, with Andrew Bishop leaving the official tackle counter struggling to keep up. Seventeen hits from the centre were eventually recorded, while Richard Fussell counter-attacked, Richard Hibbard thundered around the park, Kahn Fotuali'i dominated, Joe Bearman contributed hugely in defence and attack and the 36-year-old Ian Gough gave his side 74 minutes that a player ten years younger would have been proud to put his name to.
There were signs of fight in Dublin from the Scarlets, too, with Simon Easterby's side putting in 213 tackles, 26 of them by George Earle and 15 coming from Sione Timani, many of them bone-crunching affairs.
And yet Leinster outscored the visitors 5-1 on tries and finished 33-14 victors. You can defend as gamely as you like, but more is needed when the opposition has players of the class of Jonny Sexton, Gordon D'Arcy, Luke Fitzgerald, Isa Nacewa and Brian O'Driscoll, a strong scrum and front rowers as dynamic as Cian Healy and Sean Cronin.
It all comes back to results and another weekend without a Welsh win in Europe tells a story.
But, speaking in a personal capacity, Mike Cuddy insists it isn't all gloom for the game here.
"Everyone acknowledges the problems we have in Wales and the challenge is for us all to work towards resolving them," he said. "But if you watched that Ospreys performance against Leicester you wouldn't believe it's anywhere near the end of the world for Welsh rugby.
"I thought the boys gave a big account of themselves and were hugely unlucky not to have won.
"We can all see that certain things need to change, but there is a new board starting up (the Professional Regional Game Board), and hopefully that will bring an improvement."
Better marketing of the regions is one way forward and so is continued emphasis on bringing through young players.
"Of course it is important to keep growing our own players," said Cuddy.
"We have always done that at the Ospreys. The likes of Alun Wyn Jones, Ian Evans, Ryan Jones, Adam Jones, Richard Hibbard, Andrew Bishop, Jonathan Thomas, Dan Biggar and James Hook were all developed at our region and made into the players they have become today.
"Now they are role models for youngsters pushing through below them.
"Five or six years ago the need was to go out and pull in players like Justin Marshall and Filo Tiatia, to point the way forward for the boys who are senior guys now and help put the Ospreys on the map.
"I think what has been achieved in a decade is astonishing. You have players like Ryan, Alun Wyn, Adam, Richard Hibbard and Justin Tipuric who are synonymous with the shirt and they give everything for it each time they take the field.
"Ten years ago people said it would take a century to build a history, but we haven't done badly in a decade. Now it's about trying to push on. We are out of Europe but we just have to dust ourselves down and have another go next season. That applies to the whole of Welsh rugby."
That said, more help is clearly needed in terms of finance and extra preparation time.
Rugby in Wales isn't just about the national team and games at the Millennium Stadium.
It is also about challenging in cross-border competitions like the Heineken Cup and the Pro12.
A better balance is needed.
Get that right and the regions might just be able to move forward.
For all four professional sides, every European season doesn't have to end in rubble.