For a very long time now Leinster have enjoyed a rich history of hosting some of the finest players that international rugby has to offer.
Felipe Contepomi, Owen Finnegan, Rocky Elsom, Brad Thorn, Nathan Hines and CJ van der Linde have all trotted out for the Boys in Blue over the years and at different points in their careers the aforementioned players were widely considered as some of the finest in world rugby in their respective positions.
With growing riches in the English and French leagues, and the IRFU’s succession policy now firmly in place, the provinces have to be as selective as they ever have been with regards to which overseas internationals they can bring in, and which players they will inevitably faze out as a result of acquiring such high profile talent.
In an increasingly PR-driven and unrealistic media landscape in which many clubs now operate, sides like Leinster will roll out lines like ‘bringing in a top quality player like Isa Nacewa will contribute massively to our environment’. But, as an objective onlooker, will it really?
Leinster have already lost the likes of Ireland U-20s star Cian Kelleher due to a lack of game time at club level so who else do they stand to lose with the presence of their high profile internationals?
Will Adam Byrne stick around much longer if Leo Cullen continually selects Zane Kirchner, Nacewa and Dave Kearney ahead of him? Will Ross Molony stay with the province if he can’t break into the first team with Ireland internationals Mike McCarthy and Devin Toner ahead of him?
We’ve already seen Leinster lose Marty Moore to Wasps after being unable to supplant Mike Ross from the Leinster starting XV, who else will the province lose if Cullen doesn’t give youth a chance?
Okay, some of you may be incensed by now, I’m blowing things out of proportion, right? Molony is only 22, is he really going to spit the dummy at this stage of his career if he can’t oust Mike McCarthy? Probably not.
But the reality is Leinster must learn from their mistakes with Kelleher and Moore. What would you rather – 34-year-old Isa Nacewa and 36-year-old Mike Ross – or – 22-year-old Cian Kelleher and 25-year-old Marty Moore.
Obviously the situation isn’t as simple as that; money and a personal desire from the player for change may have been significant factors in the latter’s decision to leave Leinster, particularly with Moore who defected to big-spending Wasps, despite the IRFU’s and Leinster’s best intentions.
But, in an ideal world, I’d rather keep Kelleher and Moore. The most common mistake in professional sports is keeping a player past his sell-by date. We see it time and time again across a multitude of sports – be it Wayne Rooney in football, Rocky Elsom prior to the 2011 Rugby World Cup or Gerald Wallace in the NBA, who the Brooklyn Nets paid $10 million-a-year for a mere seven points-a-game in return.
Sometimes you have to back potential over proven talent, you have to give young players a chance to shine, but it’s a rule of thumb and not a perfect science.
For instance, Leinster were actually probably better off keeping Mike Ross over Marty Moore. With Tadgh Furlong coming through the ranks now at Leinster, Moore would have been an expensive luxury to keep. The same applies for keeping Ian Madigan, when Leinster would have been keeping a watchful eye over the impressive and highly promising Joey Carberry in the AIL last season.
It makes sense for Leinster to back Furlong and Carberry to replace Madigan and Moore, with the eye that both players will eventually replace Johnny Sexton and Mike Ross, but it’s not the same across the board.
For instance, with Nacewa, there is probably no better player you’d want to have around your club. A consummate professional, a player who exudes class and leadership and a competitor who is a proven winner in both domestic and European rugby, but what’s the point of brining back a guy who possesses all those qualities, if the very players he imparts his wisdom onto will inevitably leave because of his very presence.
I understand the Nacewa argument – his leadership is well valued and he’s a good guy to have around when Leinster are annually pillaged for players during the international breaks, but there isn’t much point in having him around if the guys who are learning from him leave because he’s limiting their opportunities at a stage in their careers when they need game time more than ever.
Cian Kelleher desperately needed game time last year and left because of a lack of it. Adam Byrne finds himself in a similar situation this season and could be another talented outside back lost because of the presence of the Kearney brothers, Nacewa and Kirchner.
In other areas the need for time on the pitch isn’t as pressing. Ross Molony will eventually replace the ageing Mike McCarthy, Carberry has a couple of years to learn under Sexton and Josh van der Flier and Jordi Murphy will naturally fill the roles vacated by Jamie Heaslip and Sean O’Brien in a couple of years.
Leinster have a really good youth system but one big criticism of Cullen’s tenure as Leinster coach, apart from their inconsistent style of play, is that he hasn’t given youth enough of a chance at the province.
Leinster’s only win during last season’s horrendous Champions Cup campaign was a 25-11 victory over Bath at the RDS. Leinster gave youth a chance that night with JVDF, Molony, Peter Dooley, James Tracy, Tadgh Furlong and Ringrose all instrumental in the win.
The next week against Wasps, Leinster were trashed 51-10 at the Ricoh Arena and not one of the aforementioned players were retained in Leinster’s starting XV.
It’s hard to say if Leinster’s young nucleus would have fared any better in the crushing defeat, but Cullen gutted the core of his only winning side in Europe in favour of some of his more esteemed former teammates.
He picked reputation over form and Leinster were duly annihilated as a resutlt.
Every great rugby side needs experienced, high-end internationals but they also need to give their young stars a chance.
Leinster seemingly have both in abundance, but they just need to do a better job of finding the right mix.
Jack O’Toole, Pundit Arena