The Welsh Rugby Union, having got things wrong at the outset of professionalism, is currently looking to emulate the Irish system, including central contracting, enticing exiled players, such as Leigh Halfpenny, George North, Ross Moriarty, and Richard Hibbard, back home, and controlling the players’ workload with a view to having them in prime condition for the national team.
Sound familiar? It should.
With a Grand Slam at international level and Leinster chasing honours on the domestic and European front, everything in the garden looks rosy.
However, as with all systems, there are flaws. The Irish one stems from the fact it is clear where the priority lies. The national team sits proudly at the head of the organisation, with the provinces dutifully wagging the tail.
Director of rugby David Nucifora calls all the shots on the administrative front, working in tandem with Joe Schmidt on all aspects that might influence the wellbeing of the Irish team. Nobody can argue the formula isn’t working but, inevitably, there will be casualties for the greater good.
The system is dependent on having the provincial head coaches fully onside and accepting of the fact that they will not always be in a position to use their resources as they see fit, bowing instead to directives from on high.
That situation didn’t always sit well when Rob Penney, Matt O’Connor, and Mark Anscombe were in situ at Munster, Leinster, and Ulster. All three moved on, with Jonno Gibbes and, somewhat surprisingly, Connacht’s Kieran Keane now set to follow suit. Any aspiring Irish coach knows he must operate under this system and is happy to do so.
Even Rassie Erasmus knew what he was letting himself in for when he signed on as director of rugby with Munster. Given that he was always going to be appointed to the top job in South African rugby at some stage, he was happy to work within the Irish system and return home with a bank of knowledge on what makes Irish rugby so successful. He has already started to effect change on Springbok rugby, based on his 18-month sabbatical here.
New Ulster coach Dan McFarland, a well-respected and astute appointment, knows exactly what the ground rules are here from his time with Connacht. He will be hopeful the system works in his favour on this occasion and Schmidt will be able to convince Joey Carbery that it is in his best interest to take the journey north for more game time next season.
Despite their dominance on the field this season, it’s events off it that have left Leinster a bit disgruntled. Understandably so. For the last few seasons, the overflow of talent from their academy and development structures has been integrated, with varying degrees of success, into the other three provinces.
Leinster have no real issue with talent that, for whatever reason, they are not in a position to offer a full time contract to being absorbed into the professional game elsewhere. The problem arises when players that they have identified and nurtured from their mid-teens and whom they see as having a key, long-term role to play in their squad are being encouraged to join another province.
Given the increasing attrition levels in the game, creeping towards 30% of the squad being incapacitated at any one time, the one non-negotiable element towards running a successful outfit is strength in depth in all positions. On that front, Leinster are stronger than the other provinces, despite those disappointing results against Benetton and Connacht recently.
What other squad could afford to play Ross Byrne in the pivotal out-half slot in the absence of Johnny Sexton, as they did in the Champions Cup against Montpellier at the RDS this season, while also selecting Schmidt’s choice as back up to Sexton in Carbery at full-back in the same game? The problem is, the clear message Schmidt carried from the last World Cup was the necessity to have three international quality players available to him for every position on the field. Three years on, he is a long way down the track towards achieving that goal for Japan 2019. His mission won’t be complete, however, until all 45 players identified are exposed to top-quality rugby on a regular basis. The only way that can be achieved is either by rotation within the province or by movement to another Irish base.
The key point of difference Leinster enjoy over their Irish rivals is the enviable conveyor belt of talent from their schools system on an annual basis. With an average of 21 players in a three-year cycle immersed in the respective provincial academies, the annual challenge for Munster is in sourcing seven players of sufficient quality to justify inclusion in the program.
For Leinster, that challenge comes down to which of the promising players they have been tracking must be excluded. Some who fail to make the cut are happy to take their chances with other provincial academies and Leinster have no issue with that.
The problem arises when it comes to frontline players, such as Jordi Murphy, Andrew Conway, Carbery, and Byrne, all of whom have the capacity to deliver on big European days. They are enticed elsewhere with the promise of more game time, which, in turn, will prepare them better for the demands of international rugby. Conway made that choice freely and his transfer has paid dividends for Munster and Ireland.
The speculation surrounding a move of either Carbery or Byrne to Ulster is different. If you have serious aspirations of conquering Europe, then you need at least two top drawer No 10s to direct operations.
On that front, it is no coincidence that both Leinster and Racing 92 — who have three international No 10s at their disposal in Dan Carter, Pat Lambie, and Remi Tales — will contest the Champions Cup decider.
Why should Leinster be pressured into diluting their resources just because another Irish province is struggling to cope? Why should they aid a rival competing in the same competition? It wouldn’t happen in any other professional sport.
The difference here is that the IRFU pays the majority of the bills and the national team is the main revenue generator for the governing body. It makes for good governance that the Irish team is given the best chance to succeed even if, at times, it’s at the expense of the provinces.
On the back of cancelling the contracts of Paddy Jackson and Stuart Olding, Ulster are clearly the favoured destination of the IRFU for one of Leinster’s key playmakers, despite both Munster or Connacht both making a strong case for consideration.
The bottom line, however, is the player must retain the right to choose where he wants to play, without ramifications. From the province’s perspective, a player who doesn’t want to be part of your squad is not worth having in the first place.
We have no indication for how long Sexton intends to play after the 2019 World Cup, but Leinster already have their succession plan in place and that revolves around keeping both Carbery and Byrne in their ranks. With the likelihood that Sexton and Carbery will be required by Schmidt for large tracts of next season, Byrne becomes an even more important player for Leo Cullen.
One potential solution is for the IRFU to sanction a loan deal, where the player could benefit from having more game time elsewhere while Leinster would be guaranteed getting him back once Sexton retires.
At least both provinces would benefit from that scenario.