DONAL LENIHAN: Irish rugby at a crossroads - Where do the IRFU’s priorities lie?

NOT long ago I posed a question as to what direction the IRFU is heading in relation to its handling of the provinces.

What is driving its policy decisions at present? 

Is everything geared exclusively towards the success of the national team - to the detriment of the provinces and is there any appetite for putting structures in place to enable our provincial sides compete seriously once again for Champions Cup glory? 

Do those twin ambitions run parallel or have they become mutually exclusive?

What we know with certainty is that with two rounds of Champions Cup action left - three for Munster and Ulster - no Irish province will host a quarter-final next April. 

That will impact the coffers of the provinces and the IRFU.

We had it so good for so long that it was hard to rationalise the scenes on the opening weekend of this season’s Champions Cup action. An attendance of only 12,348 brave souls — Munster’s lowest crowd for a European game since the redevelopment of Thomond Park—- turned up, in admittedly atrocious conditions, for the game against Treviso. 

Then again, there have been numerous occasions when the wind and rain greeted the players onto to pitch, but the faithful always turned up.

Twenty four hours later, the sight of Leinster fans leaving the RDS before the final whistle sounded in their opening day defeat to Wasps, was also a sign that, for some, their support is conditional. 

That is sad, but not untypical of modern professional sport.

Let me start by acknowledging that the ground rules have changed across the board with regard to European competition, with many factors outside the control of the IRFU. 

Increased broadcasting deals for domestic fare in France and England has seen revenues increase substantially for their clubs, not to mention the additional funding provided by the deep pockets of a handful of wealthy benefactors.

The tax incentive that kept so many players at home in the noughties no longer requires a player to retire on an IRFU contract to claw back 40% of tax paid over a ten-year period while the weakness of the Euro against Sterling is militating against attracting the best overseas talent. 

The reduction in the number of teams competing in the Champions Cup from 24 to 20 also means that the pool stage has become far more competitive and qualification for the knockout phase is more challenging than in the days of the Heineken Cup.

That said, the IRFU cannot stand idly by and preside over a system that is an obstacle to provincial success. 

Ignore history at your peril. In my opinion, success at international level is not only underpinned by having successful and competitive provinces, but is dependent on it. 

The massive budgets and deep squad base enjoyed by several clubs across Europe dictate that the glory days of Irish sides winning five Heineken Cups in seven seasons will never be seen again.

It is imperative that in order for the national side to continue to prosper and flourish, our provinces, at the very least, must remain competitive. 

The IRFU should be putting the structures and resources in place with the aim of achieving an average of two quarter and one semi finalist on an annual basis. 

Based on past achievements, that is not an over-ambitious target but we are a long way off that at present.

For that to happen it requires a top quality coaching ticket in each province. 

The IRFU has some excellent coaching programmes in place but it needs to be expanded to encourage and facilitate our best young coaches get overseas experience. 

Australian rugby has benefited massively from the coaching exposure Michael Cheika, Alan Gaffney, Jim Williams and Tony McGahan received within the Irish system and the time has come for a reciprocal arrangement down under.

Anthony Foley and Leo Cullen are two leading candidates that would have benefited hugely from such exposure. 

They are learning the hard way at the moment with both displaying the resilience and character that characterised their outstanding playing careers. 

It hasn’t helped their cause one bit that both coaching tickets in Munster and Leinster are hugely lacking experienced heads at a very demanding time.

The IRFU need to ask the question as to why, when the Leinster Professional Board decided to dispense with the services of Matt O’Connor with a year to go on his contract, no experienced overseas coaches bothered to apply for the job. 

Leinster were shocked with the lack of interest for what should be seen as one of the prime jobs in the professional game worldwide.

One wonders what message three of our most recent provincial coaches — Rob Penney, Mark Anscombe and O’Connor — are preaching to their counterparts in Australia and New Zealand as to the challenges associated with coaching a provincial side in Ireland due to the control and influence exerted by the IRFU.

Admittedly Joe Schmidt was never a head coach before he arrived and operated under this system with great success but he presided over a Leinster side that had the facility to sign top of the range imports in Isa Nacewa, Rocky Elsom, Nathan Hines and Brad Thorn.

In all probability Leinster would not have got over the line without men of that calibre supplementing their quality home grown players. 

The same applies to Munster without the likes of Doug Howlett, Rua Tipoki, Trevor Halstead and Williams.

Is the IRFU content to make up-and-coming, home grown, appointments to the role of head coach in the knowledge that, not only will they cost less, but will be easier to control? If you want a job in the Irish set up then you can’t afford to rock the boat.

Ironically the IRFU is currently in a cash-rich situation on the back of prize money accumulated from winning the Six Nations over the last two seasons. 

That plus the proceeds from domestic and European success and, it must be said, very astute governance.

The provinces have now become victims of their own success in that the financial support offered by the IRFU down the line has fallen to the level it was at eight years ago. 

The fact that Munster and Leinster had the capacity to generate sizeable revenues themselves through gate receipts, sponsorship and corporate hospitality led to a situation where the flow of funds from the top begun to shrink.

All those revenue sources have now come under attack and the provinces need help. 

The number of central contracts funded by the IRFU has been reduced from a high of over 30 a few seasons ago to about 14 at present, requiring the provinces to stump up for massive increases in salary payments.

As policy makers the IRFU can now go one of two ways. And doubtless, it’s a dilemma.

The first is to make the provinces nothing more than feeder stations for the national side and spread all the best talent around the country to make sure that the best players are getting regular game time.

That certainly has merit. The other is to get fully behind them and work together to make the individual packages stronger.

In the first scenario, you have the situation where Ian Madigan could be encouraged— performance director David Nucifora insists he does not tell players where they should play though maybe he should — to report for duty in Munster next season.

If Madigan wants to seriously challenge Johnny Sexton for the Irish No 10 jersey and, of most importance, has the desire and passion to represent Munster, then it’s in the best interests of Irish rugby if he makes that change. 

He must want it, however. If not stay put, or go elsewhere.

What is the point in Leinster having three international tight-head props if Munster are struggling in that area and BJ Botha departs at the end of the season?

Tadhg Furlong started for Leinster A against Moseley in the British and Irish Cup a month after featuring for Ireland at the World Cup when fellow internationals Mike Ross and Marty Moore were selected ahead of him for Leinster’s match day squad against Bath.

At the same time Uruguay international Mario Sagario was playing tight head for Munster A against Yorkshire Carnegie. 

Leinster had six of Ireland’s nine front row forwards at the World Cup with another two internationals left at home in Michael Bent and Moore.

However, here’s the crux— should Leinster be penalised for having a very productive front row system by losing some to a rival province chasing the same goals of success on the domestic and European stage?

To win any of the major trophies these days requires serious strength in depth, so spreading those resources around may achieve the goal of exposing more players to game time and help the national cause, but it dilutes the squad depth necessary to conquer Europe in today’s injury ravaged game.

Where do the IRFU’s priorities lie? 

A Munster team populated by seven from Leinster and two from Connacht might just prove a step too far, yet due to the increasing demise of the club game in the province, I fear that the throughput of quality players from that traditional source is set to diminish over the next few years.

A draft system is in place in New Zealand for their five Super XV franchises and has worked spectacularly well. 

Then again those sides are an amalgam of a number of provincial unions i.e the Crusaders represent Buller, Canterbury, South Canterbury, Mid-Canterbury, Tasman and West Coast. 

It helps that the Super XV is, by and large, run off in one block and players return to the home province, if required, for the premier domestic provincial competition, the ITM Cup.

While I fully support player movement between provinces - something that was common even in the amateur days - it is crucial that our provincial teams retain their identity. 

I also believe there is no point in having a player in your squad who has no interest in being there in the first place.

Playing for where you come from and who you represent is an integral part of the Irish psyche, one of the many positives sport in this country has inherited from the GAA. 

That was a major reason for keeping so many of our leading players in situ over the first twenty years of professionalism.

In the current circumstances, it was a major boost to see Conor Murray pin his colours firmly to the Munster mast recently by making it absolutely clear that he wants to remain within the Irish system.

Had he decided to leave, the damage done to Munster’s image and standing would have been immense.

While Simon Zebo has a bit to go yet to achieve Murray’s standing on the international stage, he is another that Munster will be very keen to retain. Sean O’Brien’s decision to sign for Leinster for another three years was also a major boost for the game in that province. 

The commitment and ambition shown by Murray and O’Brien needs to be matched by the governing body.

The crossroads has been reached and it’s time to bite the bullet. 

While I understand the necessity and support the controls imposed on restricting the number of non-Irish qualified players allowed in Munster, Leinster and Ulster to four (along with an additional project player), all three provinces must be facilitated and financially supported in recruiting top quality marquee names to boost their respective squads.

A series of outstanding displays from All Black Charles Piatau for Wasps this season has already whetted the appetite of all in Ulster for his arrival next year. 

Munster and Leinster are badly in need of similar quality signings - as much as a declaration of intent for their supporters as for the value added to the dressing room.

The IRFU need to offer support by upping the number of centrally-contracted players, thus reducing the wage bill of the provinces. That will allow them design more competitive financial packages to attract overseas talent.

There is a reason why the likes of Doug Howlett choose to stay in Cork to raise his family after his playing days with Munster finished. There is a reason why Isa Nacewa chose to bring his family back to Dublin and come out of retirement. 

Professional rugby in this country has a lot of positives not only for the player but for his family.

The provincial and national management boards in this country, in tandem with Nucifora, need to come together and find a workable solution that enables our provinces become competitive once again on the European stage. If that happens, the biggest winner of all will be the national team.

Winning back-to-back Six Nations was a fantastic achievement but shouldn’t be taken for granted. 

It was built on provincial success. 

The next generation of players deserve the same launchpad.

Without it, the gains of the last decade when rugby captured the imagination of a whole new audience in this country will be eroded in less time than it took Toulon to register a European treble.

Ignore history at your peril. Success at international level is not only underpinned by having successful and competitive provinces, it’s dependent on it. 

Lansdowne Road cannot stand idly by and preside over a system that is an obstacle to provincial success.


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