Munster boss Tony McGahan believes the arduous process of developing Test-standard props for Ireland is being hampered by restrictions limiting contracted players’ involvement for their Ulster Bank League clubs.
All-Ireland League (AIL) rules introduced at the start of the 2011-12 season dictate fully contracted players can only play in Division 1 with only two players per squad permitted to play.
The recent exposure of Irish shortcomings at tighthead during the Six Nations focused minds on the development of young players. Munster coach McGahan publicly joined the critics who believe current AIL restrictions are detrimental to the development of future Test front rows.
“It doesn’t matter what position you’re playing, players have to be playing, so if the opportunity to play professional rugby doesn’t exist on the weekend, and A rugby doesn’t exist, they need to continue playing,” McGahan said. “We talk about training and getting all of those things in place but the bottom line is they have to put that to some sort of test and the only way you get that is playing at the weekend.”
McGahan, who leaves Munster at the end of the season to join the Wallabies, has used the AIL in his four seasons in charge to give emerging stars experience. The club game has given Munster everything. The way we have been able to nurture our players. The first group of professional players came through the AIL and look at players that came through recently — the Peter O’Mahonys, the Conor Murrays, the [Mike] Sherrys, the [Stephen] Archers, you know they’ve built and experienced at an early age the rigours of playing AIL rugby and I think for them to continue we can’t have guys sitting on the sideline.”
Ireland’s propping woes were highlighted at Twickenham when first-choice tighthead Mike Ross suffered a neck injury early on and Ulster Tom Court, a natural loosehead, endured a torrid time at the hands of England’s Alex Corbisiero as Ross’s replacement.
The poorly-timed advertisement placed by the IRFU just three days later for a High Performance Scrum Coach added fuel to the fire but McGahan pointed to the work being done at Munster to fill the breach.
“We’ve put a lot of time into that and full credit to [Munster chief executive] Garrett [Fitzgerald[, the Munster supporters group and certainly [scrum coach] Paul McCarthy as regards the role they are playing there.
“We have put in a lot of young props there, Alan Cotter, John Ryan, Christy Condon — who is a bit older — you’ve good guys coming through, who we’re putting a lot of time into.
“You look at the quality of props we have been lucky to have. John Hayes finished his career here, you have BJ [Botha], you look at the South African props who play well into their 30s. It does take a long time.
“It is not easily transferable from the training pitch on to the pitch. It is a really strong combination of that. You look at how all the components come together, with regard to flexibility, nutrition, weight-lifting etc. It certainly is a huge, compact area that you need to deliver on and that takes time.
“Players have to be experiencing game time. That’s the ultimate test of where they’re at across all positions but it’s especially so in the front row.”
Giving players as much game time as possible also keeps them happy, and McGahan recognises that, as a head coach, there is a balance to be struck.
“I think it is a little bit two-fold. When you’re at a strong club, a successful club, for you to get in you have to knock out someone pretty good.
“Same as being at Manchester United or Liverpool or the Patriots in the NFL, whatever the sport, whatever the club is, if you’re dealing with a big club, performances have to be there.
“I think the clearest picture we have seen this year is when you see the Conor Murrays, the Mike Sherrys, the Peter O’Mahonys, the Archers etc, when they come in and actually being able to contribute and been able to stay there on their own merits. I know other clubs have brought in players and they might have come in for one or two games and then disappeared for the rest of the season.”
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