Leo Cullen was giving the press his take on Leinster’s crushing Champions Cup semi-final defeat of Scarlets at the Aviva Stadium last Saturday evening when his day brightened that little bit more with news that the province’s ‘A’ side had reached the final of the British & Irish Cup, writes Brendan O’Brien.
The second string had been dead and buried. Down 27-8 deep into the second-half away to
Jersey, they resurrected their campaign with a charge-down try from out-half Ciaran Frawley who put the seal on the comeback with the winning conversion in a game that
Cullen had spent the previous week bigging up the B&I tie to a media corps that wasn’t remotely interested in looking past the European blockbuster to come.
But Frawley’s role in that off-Broadway show took on much greater significance the next morning with reports that Joey Carbery and Ross Byrne were being sized up for some new Ulster gear.
Frawley, it seemed, could be coming to a screen near us very soon.
The IRFU have since made it clear that there was no bully boy tactics involved and no ultimatum.
There is, we have been told again, nothing in any player’s IRFU contract that leaves them at the whim of the union should high performance director David Nucifora or Joe Schmidt feel the need for someone to move sticks from one province to another.
All the indications are that Byrne and Carbery will opt to remain on the books with Leinster, for now, where the team culture is so strong and the squad is competing for the highest honours on two fronts — and under a coaching staff that has been improved no end with the addition last season of the highly-rated Stuart
Who could blame them?
There are pros and cons to Jonathan Sexton, Carbery, and Byrne all sharing the same club dressing-room. Chief among the former is that all three have played big roles in getting Leinster to a European decider.
The counter to that is the fact that Carbery, Sexton’s understudy as out-half with Ireland, has bagged so little time at 10 with the club.
That is the issue that is giving Schmidt pause for thought. Ian Madigan had to deputise for Sexton at the last World Cup on the back of a season with Leinster that saw him start just five times for the club. Countenancing a repeat come Japan and next year’s global instalment just isn’t on the menu.
What the IRFU have been keen to point out this week is that this type of discussion — between themselves, the provincial coaches and the players — goes on all the time. Make no mistake: Every single minute played by every Irish professional player is recorded and tagged in order to ensure that every drop is squeezed out of the finite pool of talent.
Carbery and Byrne are actually doing alright in that regard.
Byrne has bagged over 1,400 minutes this term, Carbery is closing in on 800 for club and country in a season hamstrung by injuries, but the real concern here is for those senior squad players around the country who have left their academy days behind them and have yet to earn a recurring role with the senior side.
Academy and sub-academy players are already playing in and around 80% of their rugby in the AIL and, with the nine-year old British & Irish Cup about to be left to wither and die on the vine by the various unions involved, the intention is that those squad players marooned in no-man’s land will soon find themselves immersed in similar fare.
‘A’ games will still be played, though in a constricted window consisting of the interpro championship and, possibly, fixtures against other reserve sides from Wales and Scotland. The intention is that these games would complement the AIL calendar and not stand in conflict with it.
Done right, it all has potential.
The IRFU want to ensure that players play and understand that the AIL badly needs restructuring before the whole thing collapses on top of itself.
The provinces will always need outlets for some players to bank game time and doing it this way would build a bridge between the amateur and pro tiers that is all but sundered right now.
A lot would need to click for that to happen.
Rules such as those limiting the number of provincial players in the AIL would need to be addressed or scrapped and the current five-division, 50-team structure would have to be squeezed into a more svelte model and one that would ring-fence club representation from all four provinces for a while at least.
None of this can happen overnight and it could all go Pete Tong.
The AIL has sauntered into the barber shop for many a haircut over the years only to walk out with a weak smile, protesting its satisfaction while cursing at yet another botched attempt to make it look smart. Getting this next one right will require everyone to take a long, hard look in the mirror.
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