Fit for purpose: Why Irish rugby’s never had it so good

Is it any wonder the structure of the professional game in Ireland is the envy of so many of our international counterparts at present?

Fit for purpose: Why Irish rugby’s never had it so good

On the eve of what could prove one of the most competitive Six Nations championships for some time, the only downside is the number of quality performers, from all the competing sides, that are unlikely to see any game time.

A cursory glance at the Lions squad that toured New Zealand last summer leaves one in no doubt as to the hand Welsh coach Warren Gatland has been dealt.

He may have derived some merited satisfaction from drawing a three-test series with the All Blacks in their own backyard but, from his lofty position at the helm of Welsh rugby this week, he must ponder at what cost.

When you look at those missing from his starting line- up to face Scotland tomorrow, you wonder how Ireland would cope without the services of eight proven Lions tourists?

A Lions test back row of tour captain Sam Warburton, Taulupe Faletau, and 2013 tourist Dan Lydiate will miss the entire tournament along with first-choice half-backs Rhys Webb and Dan Biggar.

Across the back five, quality international performers in Jonathan Davies, Liam Williams and George North, all of whom have experienced some magic moments in Lions colours, are also set to miss out on some or all of the games.

When the Welsh medical team examine the injury profile of their players, they must ask the question why seven of their 12 2017 Lions are currently unavailable through injury. What is the IRFU doing so differently that practically all of their Lions contingent are in rude health?

Even England, with their Lions exposed to more game time with their clubs, are only short two tourists in Kyle Sinckler and Elliot Daly on the basis of injury.

Admittedly, Ben Te’o is currently training with their squad but hasn’t played since October while two others, Joe Marler and James Haskell, miss out on the early rounds due to suspension.

That said, the intense physicality of the Aviva Premiership means that Eddie Jones is missing a heap of injured squad players which will have an effect on the quality of their bench — or his ‘finishers’ as he likes to categorise them.

Much focus will be on Scotland to see if they can continue their upward spiral and build on that incredible 53-24 win over Australia and the narrow five-point defeat to New Zealand last November.

They didn’t have enough players on Lions duty to worry about potential fatigue even if Stuart Hogg has only recently returned to competitive action after a series of ailments.

They appear primed to take advantage of those Welsh injury woes tomorrow in Cardiff where, incredibly, they haven’t won since 2002. The only caveat here is an extraordinary run of front row injuries which has resulted in no less than five props and four hookers sidelined.

With only two professional franchises in Glasgow Warriors and Edinburgh to draw from, Scotland have a very narrow player base and consequently, have no choice but to keep selecting their foreign-based players such as captain John Barclay, Chris Harris, Greig Laidlaw, Richie Gray, and Sean Maitland.

With that in mind, rumours last December of an audacious plan by the Scottish Rugby Union to make a takeover bid for Worcester Warriors as a base for their Aviva Premiership-based players apparently has some credence attached to it.

I’m not sure how Premiership Rugby and the RFU would view having one of their affiliated clubs being utilised as a base for Scottish players, in effect a third Scottish district operating in exile.

When you look back at the possibility of the IRFU cutting Connacht adrift back in 2003, the fact that they currently boast 10 Irish internationals on their playing roster highlights just how crazy that decision would have been.

Having four professional bases allows Irish rugby to operate at its optimum level and cater for the quantity and quality of young talent emerging on an annual basis from the provincial academies, especially in Leinster.

With all players in this country operating off an IRFU contract of one category or another, the paymaster has complete control over the minutes played and the injury management of over 120 players.

It also enables players to undertake a proper pre-season programme, regardless of their touring commitments over the summer, and that contributes massively to a reduced injury profile.

Of the 11 Irish players who featured on the 2017 Lions tour, only Sean O’Brien and long-term injury victim Jared Payne miss out on tomorrow’s trip to Paris, with the hope that O’Brien may yet feature before the end of the tournament.

Factor in the presence of three previous tourists in Rob Kearney, Keith Earls, and Cian Healy and you really begin to appreciate just how well managed the players under the Irish regime are.

While the system isn’t perfect and has some self-imposed restrictions in terms of the non-selection of overseas-based based players such as Donnacha Ryan and the soon-to-depart Simon Zebo, there is no question that the benefits far outweigh the costs, especially when the players know in advance the consequence of their actions.

With the size of the players increasing all the time, coupled with greater intensity, more ball-in-play time and phases of play resulting in even more collisions, something has to give.

American football is probably the only sport similar in terms of collisions and they only play 16 regular season games.

Even then the average career of a football player is, according to the NFL, about six years. The NFL’s player association claim it is even lower at 3.3 years.

The average for professional rugby players was set at seven years in a survey carried out over four years ago so that is probably set to reduce even further.

What we can say with certainty is that the system in place in this country offers the Irish team entering this Six Nations the platform to operate at its maximum potential. They are primed to succeed.

Coupled with that, Ireland is blessed with one of the top three coaches in the professional game at present which enables us to get the very best out of what we have.

When you compare that to the environment the current French squad find themselves in and the litany of problems facing countries like Australia, Argentina, and even New Zealand in dealing with their player drain to Europe, is it any wonder that Ireland sit third in the World Rugby rankings behind New Zealand and England?

All things considered, there really should only be one winner in Paris tomorrow.

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