There has been many a question down the years that has left people baffled in search of an answer. One such question that will never be answered conclusively revolves around a certain chicken and egg. Another question which grows louder and louder is the continued failure of the IRFU to fully utilise the resources of the country. In terms of playing population, Ireland is dwarfed by the majority of top tier nations they face on a regular basis. Yet, the structures do not exist to maximise the playing pool to its full potential.
Ireland has four provincial teams, each of whom are competing in the Heineken Cup. This creates the perfect platform to feed players through to the international stage. Before experiencing rugby at international level, the Heineken Cup is as close as it gets for Northern Hemisphere players. Unfortunately there has been a definite failure to capitalise on this opportunity by those involved in the Irish game.
Looking at the latest batch of inter-provincial clashes in the Rabo Pro12 gives an indication as to the problem that exists. Jordi Murphy picked up the Man of the Match award for Leinster in their clash with Connacht, with an excellent display from number 8 in place of Jamie Heaslip. However, would we expect to see Murphy thrown into a vital Heineken Cup clash in that position? No. Murphy is just one example of an extremely talented player coming through the ranks that is having his development stunted by being a “second-stringer”, being rolled out in the matches far removed from the bright lights and the razzmatazz of the Heineken Cup. Like Murphy, Dominic Ryan, Noel Reid and Brendan Macken all produced good showings against Ulster in the absence of the bigger names. These players will always be assured of a decent number of Pro12 games because of the system employed by the IRFU, to safeguard the exposure of Irish Internationals to too many games in a season. At this stage, that can’t be enough.
In Munster players with promising potential like Ian Nagle, Luke O’Dea and Ronan O’Mahony are also players who could do with regular exposure to top level matches to improve their talents. Looking at the turnover of players New Zealand have on a regular basis is beggars belief. The way in which a country like that, which has a similar population, deals with its talent puts Ireland to shame. Players constantly move between the Super Rugby franchises to ensure the best players play as much as possible. Having seen Connacht face up to Toulouse in back-to-back fixtures and playing two games against Saracens, it would be surely be of better value to spread the wealth of the talent available in the country to all four corners. Drills and training sessions are one thing, but applying skills in a match situation can only be honed in the pressurised surroundings of a game. Connacht have improved in the last number of seasons and the quality of players coming through their academy can’t be argued with, but they need more strength in depth in order to push themselves further forward.
There is no doubting what makes teams great is the strength of the squad, it is one thing having a terrifically talented 15 or 20 players but the teams that win titles generally have quality back up in every position. For example there were 18 Leinster players in the Ireland camp for the Autumn Test series. This means there are players sitting on the bench for Leinster in the biggest games that are in the Irish camp. This should not be the case. While taking some quality squad players from Leinster, Munster and Ulster to bolster the strength of Connacht would be scoffed at on a provincial level, the end game must be what benefits the national team most.
Fionn Carr, Jamie Hagan (both from Leinster) and Sean Cronin (Munster) all arrived in Connacht as young players with potential in the middle of the last decade and improved immeasurably. Carr became Connacht’s all time record try scorer in the Pro12 and Hagan was being touted as a possible long term replacement for John Hayes at tight head for Ireland. All three ended their time at Connacht when Leinster came calling in 2011 and all three had their heads turned and decamped to the East. Cronin has finally started to make an impact having become Leinster’s first choice hooker since Richardt Struass has been unavailable. Carr and Hagan both struggled to make an impact and saw their careers stagnate as a result. They weren’t signings Leinster needed at the time, yet were viewed as players who could do a job for the squad in the Pro12 when the internationals were away. Carr and Hagan spent most European weekends with the Leinster “A” squad while Connacht were debuting in the Heineken Cup. Carr has since returned to Connacht, but at 28 may rue the two years of relative inactivity.
While the Western province is by a considerable distance the fourth side in the country, more should be being done to enhance the team so they can threaten Ireland’s top three more regularly. As a country with limited resources, everything should be done to extract the maximum from what is available. While the Heineken Cup has drawn the Irish teams interest like a magnet for years, now is the time to realise the national side is now the team most in need of a shot in the arm. The coach everyone wanted has been installed. Now action should be taken to supply him with talented players with regular frontline exposure to the biggest games.
Pundit Arena, Ozer McMahon.