Wednesday 20 September 2017

Another victory puts Irish rugby's dominance into bonus territory

The IRFU could not have foreseen this level of success, writes Brendan Fanning

The trophy presentation ceremony at Twickenham last night was something the IRFU never dreamed of when they were putting together their Strategic Plan 2008-12. The target in that period was for an Irish team to win the Heineken Cup; to have a team in the semi-finals each season; and to have two teams qualifying for the knockouts.



So there was Leo Cullen, for the third time in four years, in the foreground as the lights flashed and the rockets went off. Before a record crowd his team had won by a record margin, and the captain had played his part. Uniquely however there was another Irish captain looking at his runners-up medal while this was going on.

Leinster had just made history, establishing themselves as the best group of players this competition has ever seen. Toulouse still top the table with four titles but that spread started in year one, 1995, until Murrayfield in 2005. Rather, since 2009, Ireland's top team had become Europe's.

The bonus for the Union was that the domination extended to having two teams in the final, three teams in the knockouts, four teams in the competition itself. Airing such ambition in public would have been ludicrous, not just for the grief that would follow if it didn't come to pass, but that at the time you would have considered it grounds for committal.

When the Union were putting together that document there was no mention either of ethnic cleansing. There was a nothing line which said: "Operate provincial academy structures to maximise indigenous professional recruitment." Indeed. No mention of doing away with those non-indigenous professionals though.

That storm will rise again in the wake of yesterday because of the misguided argument that limiting the number of non-Ireland eligible players will render all future European campaigns barren. It's unfortunate that the Union weighed in with their threat of drastic legislation when not only was it unnecessary, but it fuelled the dim-witted argument that because success in Europe had been achieved with a rump of overseas players, the two were inseparable.

We don't know how exactly the odds had changed on Leinster winning the Heineken Cup, after 15 minutes of their semi-final with Munster in Croke Park in 2009, but certainly they were as long as your arm. That was when Felipe Contepomi went off with a ruptured knee, to be replaced by Jonny Sexton whose previous involvement had been behind the wheel of the Blue Magic Bus that had crashed in Castres, after which it was written off. And you know what? Sexton coped, and went on to become the quality Test player he is now.

The problem is not in getting more Ireland-qualified players into our provincial teams, it's finding an escape route for the IRFU to leave behind the masterplan to drive the snakes out of Ireland.

Two weeks ago, Leinster lobbed onto the desk of Eddie Wigglesworth, the Union's rugby director, a map towards the fire escape. We understand it was a drawing that made sense to the other provinces. And when Wigglesworth and Player Contracts Review Group (PCRG) chairman Martin O'Sullivan come back with a plan that relates to the same building, then we can all move on, with fewer non-Ireland eligible players on our books, and having arrived there through negotiation and common sense.

Leinster are the best positioned to prepare for this shift in personnel because their conveyor belt started first and already it is carrying through a quality product. Moreover, when they will need to supplement home-grown with overseas, their pre-eminent position opens doors that otherwise would remain closed.

Off the field, their new HQ in Belfield is what you would expect of a professional sporting organisation with ambitions to stay at the top. Connacht are the only other province with offices/medical, training pitch and gym all on the one site.

It says something about Munster that still they don't even have that. In 2004 in these pages, after they had lost a Heineken Cup semi-final to Wasps, Jim Williams had a lash off Munster's snail's pace towards using supplements that were standard across the water. And he was incredulous that the group was split between two centres.

His compatriot Tony McGahan left for home last week, and he had in his hand the same hymn sheet as Williams. At least the one about the provisional and official wings of the organisation -- the supplements stuff got sorted long ago.

You may wonder if it matters, given that Munster coped with their bizarre training arrangement to win two European titles. Well, it does if you're trying to be the best at everything you do, and given the competitive streak running through that organisation, you would imagine it's still an issue. The politics attaching to it are explosive however. The solution may well come with the changing faces in the squad: as the Cork Marrieds retire the younger Rebels can be told to go and get a flat in Limerick.

This won't solve their Academy issue though. Rugby's newness to the professional game means it relies far more than football, for example, on supplying from within. So if your conveyor belt is slow then your progress will be too.

It's true that Leinster have access to greater numbers than Munster but it's inconceivable that between the seven or eight frontline rugby schools (depending on whether or not you include Glenstal in that group), plus the crop from the club system, you wouldn't have enough to work with every year. How many Premiership clubs, for example, would have the same feeder channel?

Ulster's numbers are better again, and with the imminent arrival to that side of the business of Brian McLaughlin, their potential is good. The stats are only part of the issue across the provinces -- access to the schools is what it's about.

Already Ulster are on good terms with their schools and Leinster have most onside too, but Munster are still climbing a steep slope with some of their frontline institutions. Trying to convince school teachers that professional coaches can enhance the development of their players is nothing like as straightforward as you'd think.

Leinster's movement on this political front is having a real impact on the quality of players filling their age-grade teams, and queuing now to get into their Academy. The more the merrier in this business. Get this right and the reliance on overseas talent will reduce. And the quality of that talent will be top of the range.

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