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Munster rugby: Why has the conveyor belt of talent stopped working?

Munster rugby faces tough challenges ahead and needs to invest heavily in youth development to ensure a strong future, writes John McEvoy.

Munster may face a precarious future.  That’s not an entirely unreasonable prediction; the weaknesses of the youth system, coupled with IRFU stipulations restricting the provincial sides from importing foreign talent, mean that Munster certainly have problems to overcome. There’s a glaring gulf between the talent output of Munster and the other provincial sides; even Connacht, the forgotten child of Irish rugby, can boast a recent usurping of Munster with regard to youth development.

The latest Irish under 19s side announced to play Australia contained only four Munster players.  Unfortunately, this is becoming a commonplace occurrence when the national underage representative side is being selected.  Leinster maintain a vast battalion of quality youth players to call upon in the event of injury to frontline players.  Exciting individuals like Luke McGrath have impressed despite limited game time; the emergence of Jack McGrath onto the international arena proves Leinster’s strength still further.  In Ulster,  players like Jackson, Olding and Marshall herald a bright future up north.  Munster, though, can’t boast  such burgeoning prospects.  Giants of Munster rugby like Paul O’Connell and Ronan O’Gara will bring the curtain down on their glittering careers shortly.  Big shoes need to be filled if the glory days Munster fans have become accustomed to are to continue.

Why is Munster struggling to compete at underage level these days?  More to the point, what has Leinster done which makes their player factory so productive?  Granted, population-wise they will always trump the other provinces, but there must be lessons Munster can adopt.  Their proliferation of strong school sides makes their Senior Cup an ultra-competitive showpiece, something the schools game in Munster lacks.  Annually only a few select schools can lay claim to the schoolboy’s throne in Munster.  This is evident by Rockwell’s recent dominance, even if Crescent managed to wrestle the title from their grasp last year.

A strong vibrant schools game is often a precursor to senior success and aid in developing this facet of Munster rugby is urgently needed.   Currently, the system is borderline dysfunctional.  The inherent tradition of the superior schools and their capacity to attract players is just one of the flaws in the system. Smaller schools or school less rugby orientated cannot compete with the big boys.  Castletory’s victory a few years ago suggested a reversal in this trend but that has since defused.

Anecdotally, the smaller schools do not focus as much on strength and conditioning as the larger schools and cannot physically compete as a result.  The controversial issue of sports nutrition and supplementation further emphasises this gulf.  A change in culture is required and that can often be difficult to engineer, especially at schools level, as these are boys not professional athletes.  Some schools may not wish to participate, arguing that a more skills-based approach is needed.  There is merit in that argument, but it is hard to execute skills when your scrum is backpedaling at a rate of knots.  Nevertheless, the sooner a more competitive system is brought to fruition the better.

As these players progress to college rugby, UCC and UL are lagging far behind UCD.  As eluded to earlier UCD is fast becoming a hotbed of rugby talent.  UCD’s prowess in developing young players is borne out by the plethora of their players in the Leinster and Ireland sides.   Additionally their strength is underpinned by their prominence in club rugby despite being a college side. Massive investment in high performance at UCD has left Munster’s universities languishing behind, although strong club rugby structures are lessening the blow.  Hopefully Declan Kidney’s appointment as head of sport at UCC will see UCC finally beginning to catch up with UCD.

It is not all doom and gloom though; gems like Tommy O’Donnell seem to burst on the scene intermittently.  Furthermore, the Munster academy seems to have a high conversion rate in progressing its intake successfully.  Recent graduates such as Lions Simon Zebo and Conor Murray are advertisement enough.  It is a delicate position to be in though, if Munster’s success is to depend on the ascent of a select few from a given generation.  Even still, the tradition of Munster Rugby will always be tenacious, brave and proud.  These venerable attributes can sometimes mitigate gaps in class and allow Munster stand up and fight into the future.

Pundit Arena, John McEvoy.

Featured Image By http://www.flickr.com/photos/37854512@N00/ bluepelican [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons.

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