JOHN MCHENRY: Time for Irish rugby to introduce NFL-style draft system

Is a change in mindset required if Ireland is to ever realise its full potential in professional rugby?

By 1987, I was fortunate enough to have achieved all that I could achieve in amateur golf in terms of representative honours. I had represented Cork, Munster, Ireland and Great Britain & Ireland. The time was now right to turn professional. Casting away the safety harness, from that moment on my career was going to be determined by myself.

It’s very easy to have a romantic notion about professionals in any trade. To be the best, they have to constantly make tough decisions in demanding circumstances.

At the very top of the ladder, the buck stops with you and you live or die by your own sword.

In every walk of life, the very best professionals in any field are always in demand, so it is hardly surprising that we have become accustomed to seeing the best regularly move around in order to satisfy their quest for a new challenge or simply because the best financial opportunity lies elsewhere.

As cold as that may sound, the bankable life of a professional sportsperson or coach is short, so who can blame them when they attempt to “max out” on their short shelf life.

So the trick is that if you are going to invest heavily to bring in someone like Joe Schmidt or David Nucifora or Doug Howlett, you had better hope that they add value to the organisation, leaving it in a better place than when they first arrived.

In that respect, I believe that David Nucifora, the head of performance for the IRFU has a very onerous task, given Ireland’s limited playing pool.

If he is to truly give Ireland and the provinces the best opportunity to succeed then he must change the romantic parochial mindset that players should remain loyal to their county or their province.

What a load of rubbish! Do we shout any less for Ireland now that Schmidt is in charge? Of course not. It’s the performance and the result that counts most.

This Saturday afternoon, Munster will take to the field for their last match of their PRO12 season against the Scarlets, knowing the result could have huge implications for the organisation.

A win will guarantee Champions Cup qualification and some small sense of consolation for Munster’s frustrated fans, whereas a loss would be almost unimaginable for this proud organisation, who for so long were among the aristocrats of European rugby.

Regardless of the outcome, there will be change and if the manner of Rassie Erasmus’s announcement as Director of Rugby for next year is anything to go by, it seems that no one is now safe in the increasingly debt-ridden organisation.

Time for Irish rugby to introduce NFL-style draft system

While far more qualified commentators than I have voiced their opinions as to what structural changes need to be made in terms of personnel, it is essential now that Nucifora both sees and communicates the “big” picture in order that the IRFU finds the best solution for all four provinces going forward.

As Winston Churchill once said, “Change is the price for survival”. The IRFU must now take responsibility and lead that change.

Do I have all the answers? Of course not, but I am keen to invite debate because currently the provinces and, to a lesser extent,Ireland are losing ground at a rate of knots.

Right now we know that the playing field is not the same in every province, be that the playing numbers or the financial resources available. So it is essential that whatever long-term plan the IRFU puts in place, it attempts to achieve some sort of parity for everyone if we truly want to produce the best talent in order to make Ireland and the provinces consistently competitive. In doing so, they will also go a long way towards addressing falling attendances.

Solutions will not come from the same old thinking.

It will require a whole lot of passion, courage and conviction and the IRFU must lead the change by spending the necessary resources in order to make sure that Irish rugby stays relevant.

One of the most obvious opportunities for the IRFU is the creation of a system that best shares the talent pool of players coming on stream each year.

What about an American NFL-style Irish rugby draft system for those players in third level education or who are aged 20 or older?

The draft is arguably one of the main reasons why the NFL is so successful. It is structured to give the worst performing teams the best picks thereby helping to level the playing field.

If applied in Ireland it would also give a prospective talent multiple options.

For the IRFU, it would be a win-win situation, as it would put more talent in the shop window for Irish selection, which would in turn keep our star players at home, while also reducing the reliance on expensive overseas players. More competitive teams would also attract bigger audiences, which in turn would help drive and sustain the budgets of provinces.

If a draft were to be introduced for the 2017 season, for example, it could hypothetically be for a limited number of All-Ireland IRFU-identified players, say 32. Munster, as the worst performing province, would have the first pick in each round, so that they could specifically target their requirements. Ulster would have the next pick and so on.

To stand even a remote chance of being drafted, you would have to be a seriously good player. As regards the provincial sub academy set up, provinces would be motivated to produce the best players possible for the draft or face sanction from the IRFU for non-conformity, perhaps losing future draft picks or funding.

The IRFU would be responsible for the information the teams use to make their picks — video footage, performance statistics as well as biometric data, all of which would be available to every team. How teams interpret that data would be up to themselves. That’s where scouting and quantitative analysis departments come in.

In the NFL there is a direct correlation between draft success and winning, so with so much talent available, a huge amount of responsibility would be placed on the provincial management to research their would-be picks to the nth degree, in the hope that some of these players in time will become the cornerstone of their franchises.

Although no points would be scored or championships won, a draft could well provide the most productive way of advancing Ireland’s cause, while also being one of the most eagerly awaited events in rugby’s sporting calendar.

Food for thought.


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