As we approach the end of the pool stages of the European Champions Cup, and with only Ulster having a realistic prospect of qualifying for the quarter-finals (Munster have a slim mathematical chance) has the time come for those in charge of Irish rugby to question the way in which the provinces are structured?
While Irish provinces dominated the old Heineken Cup for the best part of a decade, they are currently struggling to even compete with the best of England and France, with Munster and Leinster in particular struggling badly in their pools.
Since the dawn of professionalism, Irish players have been directly contracted to the IRFU, an arrangement which, by and large has worked well; the provinces were consistently at the top table of European rugby while the national team has arguably developed into the best in the northern hemisphere.
One of the main reasons for this has been the IRFU’s policy of keeping their best players under contract in Ireland, where their welfare has been at the top of the IRFU’s priorities. Constant co-operation between the provinces, the IRFU and the national team management has ensured that Ireland’s elite players have been given every opportunity to maximise their potential and ensure that they stay as healthy and as fit as possible.
Now, however, with French and English clubs strengthening their grip on European competition, perhaps the Irish provinces could benefit from a change in ownership structures. It’s generally accepted that the provinces can’t match the wages which are being offered overseas; wages which, when coupled with greater first team opportunities, can be appealing to players.
If the provinces were owned by wealthy investors, the stark difference in the wages being offered in Ireland compared to Europe could be eliminated. It would also allow the provinces to bring in what players they deem to be necessary, without interference from the IRFU. Remember the Stephen Moore incident? Imagine the positive influence that the Wallabies captain could have had on a Munster squad shorn of confidence and leadership, had it not been for the union’s objections.
However, many people have been quick to point out that while French clubs have being dominating Europe, the national team’s form has plummeted steeply over the last number of years. The influx of foreign players into the Top 14, combined with eccentric coaching teams have seen France slip down the pecking order in Europe and the world game.
Four days after France were humiliated by New Zealand in Cardiff the FFR brought in legislation which will limit the number of overseas players in French clubs’ match day squads. This drastic step is the beginning of a much needed overhaul of French rugby.
While French sides may have taken private ownership too far, is it too much to imagine Munster or Leinster being able to afford to sign Dan Carter or Duane Vermeulen without it being detrimental to the national team’s cause?
Pa Freeman, Pundit Arena
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