With Leinster and Munster already out and Ulster also in danger of failing to qualify for the knock-out stages of the European Champions Cup, is it time for rugby administrators to hit the panic button? Has the demise of Irish club rugby contributed to the ailing fortunes and do they have a bigger role to play in the future? Barry Coughlan canvassed the opinions of the country’s coaches.
Mike Ruddock, Lansdowne and former Wales Grand Slam winning coach:
I wouldn’t panic. I wouldn’t rip up the provincial model. I think this year has been exceptional in that it came off the back of the World Cup, a lot of players were away for a long time, and then it was straight back into Europe without playing that many games. That was one factor while you also had a lot of transition in some provinces. Anthony Foley, for instance, is only in his second season, there were changes in back room staff, changes in personnel.
In Leinster, Matt O’Connor was let go, Leo Cullen is in with new staff, Les Kiss moved to Ulster but they had to wait until after the World Cup for him to go up there. I think, though, there are fine young players coming through in Irish rugby as shown in the Leinster-Bath game last week. The model has served Irish rugby very well right up from the schools to the AIL to the Provincial A teams and the Academies. I don’t think we need to panic although these things happen now and again. That’s sport. However, there is no doubt in my mind the clubs can play a part in making Irish rugby stronger, it would be good if we saw some more of these contracted guys (playing with their clubs), it would certainly benefit the individuals and help them to progress; in turn it would benefit the provinces.
Feargus O’Donoghue, Dolphin coach:
I believe it is important – and other clubs throughout the country would feel the same – for players to be given as much exposure to playing the game as possible. I don’t believe young guys with their provinces are getting enough of that at the moment. An argument would be to play the domestic season, a league of several games in the first half of the season and then a different competition like a cup after Christmas which you play without your Academy players.
The idea of better players playing in the league would be good for the provinces; it’s like an apprenticeship serving his time, he learns the tricks of the trade at club level, and that this would be a stepping stone to get to the next place. I think it is particularly important for up and coming players in certain positions, the front row for instance, to be exposed to different types of challenges and they would get that on the field with their clubs. As it is, players are taken straight out of school, put into an Academy but they haven’t been tried or tested at senior club rugby level. I really don’t know how guys can play for their provinces at A level without having had the experience of playing Munster Senior Cup or All Ireland League. It should be across the board really but there are guys in the front five going in at a very young age without having experienced the “dark arts” in the front row or the front five.
Andy Wood, Clontarf coach:
I wouldn’t link the departure of the provinces from the pool stages to any single event, but the World Cup commitments was probably a factor in some of the problems the provinces have had in Europe. Still, I do feel strongly about re-establishing the link between club and provincial rugby. Here in Leinster, to be fair to Leo (Cullen) and Girvan (Dempsey), there has been a lot of dialogue in terms of accessibility to the players, which is probably the biggest reason why there has been a bit of a slump.
I think there should be a healthy link between the two levels, it can only help player development and I feel any time players are not available (needed) for the province they should be available to the club; it’s not too long ago when that was the case. You wouldn’t expect to see fully contracted guys but it would be good for all if the Academy players were made available. The more rugby these guys get in an adult environment the better. I am not sure of the benefits offered by the B&I Cup. I feel it would be productive if the young guys could develop around older, more experienced players in a regular match day environment.
Paul Neville, Garryowen forwards coach:
I don’t believe it is a coincidence that Munster, Leinster and Ulster have struggled, the World Cup has to be taken into account of course and you had the situation where second tier players moved up a notch but really they probably didn’t have enough rugby or enough experience under their belts. It should also be noted all three of those aforementioned provinces have either brand new or relatively new coaching tickets and it takes time for that to settle as well.
I would feel strongly though that right now there are many players not getting enough game time. I really don’t think they’re getting enough rugby. I also think the provinces are not paying enough heed to those who are released for club duty, I am not sure whether the provinces are seeing it as beneficial, and I don’t think there is enough chat between the provinces and the clubs to assess how these guys are going. The B&I Cup, I wonder about. I wonder whether it would be better to bolster the club teams, particularly Division 1A. I suppose allowing the club scene develop as it should is not going to have an immediate beneficial effect on the provinces; it would take a while but I’m sure it would help everyone.
Matt Brown, Galwegians coach:
It must be extremely difficult for the Irish provinces to compete in what is now not a level playing field, all the French clubs are buying up All Blacks and the English clubs are also buying in, albeit maybe not on the same level. A lot of the teams still in it you would be questioning how much home grown talent is there. That is some way towards going to explain why the Irish provinces have not competed as well as they have done before. As far as the clubs are concerned, I would look at the results of the provincial reserve teams and I question how much development the player are getting.
It’s great to see the kids being brought into a professional set-up, they’re certainly getting exposure to the right sort of training but I don’t see anything other than making the club game stronger by allowing these players get match time week in and week out. By all means keep the interprovincial ties but the British and Irish Cup is to me a bit of a joke. The scorelines are very one-sided; sometimes these kids end up not playing a great deal of rugby and the AIL is there to be used, it’s very competitive especially in the top couple of divisions and these players would get games instead of just going through drills and skills.
David Corkery, Young Munster coach:
I think what’s happening to the Irish provinces has been coming for a while, in one sense we have hit bottom and it might be the catalyst to make tough choices and changes. Money certainly has an element to play and money is not the be all and end all but it plays a part, it certainly helps to have a big budget. The whole structure here needs to be looked at, there are issues between club and provinces, they’re not singing from the same page. I think the problem with the provinces is that they feel the club game isn’t at the level they want to have players come through and club coaches feel differently.
But the clubs are living in a false environment in a sense, an example is possibly the Cork Con v UCD (Bateman Cup semi final, won 24-0 by Con) last weekend. If that game was played any other week, it would have been a different game because UCD had no less than 10 players involved with Leinster A, Con had maybe three or four. It’s not a true reflection on what the clubs can produce because they’re not given the chance. The Academy is very important in terms of nutrition, strength and conditioning and educating the players on how to be a proper athlete but that’s really where the Academy should stop and the players be allowed back to their clubs and play at that level where the standards within the AIL would automatically improve by their participation. It would be good for everyone.
Paul Cunningham, Old Belvedere coach:
I believe it would be worthwhile to restructure the league to allow for incorporating more academy/early development players. You certainly would bring up the standard of the league and I think you would get more game time into those professionals than right now. I suppose at the moment, the AIL as currently stands is not strong enough to merit preparation for the next level professional player, and it’s not a case as to whether the clubs can help out but whether or not the two elements can be brought together to provide a better functioning league which would prepare those players for the next level.
I believe the professional game would need to ensure that the Academy and development players are playing regularly in a competitive environment which to my mind would need them to be released to the clubs twice a week in preparation for a weekend. If that were to be done the clubs would need to be supported financially, and maybe through the use of coaches and other elements of the pro game to bring up the level of the league. What the players need are games. Right now, there is too much of a disconnect between the two.
Ronnie Duncan, Ballynahinch Director of Rugby:
There is an open ended budget for French clubs, while the English clubs are looking to have a salary cap more or less removed. The age old thing is if you have a massive budget to play with and can buy players in from around the world, then it’s going to make life difficult for teams like the provinces because they have been set up with the view to helping the national side. As a layman, I feel the only thing clubs in France and England think about is the success of their clubs and not the country. I suppose it would seem to me the provinces are, therefore, a bit hamstrung.
The Irish model is different, you want success, but it’s also about nurturing the best of local talent. There are two different philosophies and I would suggest the Irish one is more correct in the long run. The IRFU is meeting its responsibilities while it seems the rugby Unions in England and France have lost control, it’s now very much in control of the club owners. In the long term is that the right model? I don’t think so but it is probably going to get more difficult for the provinces. In terms of our club, we couldn’t complain about the level of support we get from Ulster, there’s plenty of cooperation in terms of availability of players. It is a first class relationship.
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