Thursday 30 March 2017

Brendan Fanning: Tying down talent the key to sustaining provinces' revival

Garry Ringrose — one of a raft of Leinster’s rising stars. Photo: Sportsfile
Garry Ringrose — one of a raft of Leinster’s rising stars. Photo: Sportsfile
Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

It was 2004, in the wake of the Heineken Cup semi-final defeat by Wasps, that Munster's Jim Williams gave an interview to this newspaper sounding off about a few things. Top of his list was the madness of a squad split between two training bases, separated by over 100km, and linked by a crap road.

He would have been impressed by the new training centre in UL that now unites the group. It was a long time coming - yet in the context of Munster's season, right on cue. It's as if, overnight, a squad with European aspirations have an appropriate base. And up the M7 you'll find another group operating out of a top-class facility, with their own squad bullish about the future.

A year ago we were writing both off, for the vital signs were not good. Their English and French competitors were beating them around the park with great wads of cash. For the first time since 1998 the knockout stages of Europe were an Irish-free zone. And if cash is king then it was reasonable to surmise that such a wasteland might present itself as often as not.

Roll on 12 months and both Leinster and Munster are thriving. And this afternoon in Toulouse we'll see if Connacht - by comparison, operating out of a stony field - can embellish last season's Guinness Pro12 success with a place in the Champions Cup quarter-finals.

Munster's resurgence inevitably centres on the Anthony Foley story, but the emotion that kick-started their run since his death is not something that can be tapped into week after week. They were like men on a mission when they ran out to play Glasgow, crucially in a full Thomond Park which they couldn't fill last season, the week after the tragedy in Paris. And they now have the players and surrounding environment to sustain the effort.

It certainly didn't look that way when Leinster were leading them around Lansdowne Road in the Pro12 in October. But the more Rassie Erasmus and Jacques Nienaber have worked with the side, the more clinical they have become. And the development of a handful of players has been dramatic. It was on Foley's watch that the Scannell brothers, Niall and Rory, and tighthead John Ryan, were learning the hardest part of their trade, but they have come through impressively.

Add in recruits Jean Kleyn and Jaco Taute and you have some firepower. Then welcome back Peter O'Mahony and you have a leader. And if you can have two fit 10s instead of one - after two seasons of utter misery on the injury front, Tyler Bleyendaal is finally playing - then you have playmakers. Meanwhile Erasmus and Nienaber have given them a way of playing, with and without the ball, that borrows from what made Munster great and puts a couple of layers on top.

Leinster's resurgence has had none of the emotion; rather it's as if a bus pulled into the car park in their UCD headquarters with a raft of young fellas ready to play pro rugby.

A year ago there was a glimmer of hope when a team containing Garry Ringrose, Luke McGrath, Peter Dooley, James Tracy and Ross Molony beat Bath, to end Leinster's worst ever run in Europe, of five defeats. The next week Leo Cullen restored the experienced core and they leaked 51 points to Wasps.

Move on to summertime last year and positive noises from the Leinster camp were as common as squirrels falling out of trees. Then along came Stuart Lancaster. Having patched himself up from the shellacking he took in the England job, the new coach spared Cullen the chore of trying to make things happen on the training field, and from day one was transformative.

You look at their profile now and it's the envy of Europe: 17 of the 23 on duty at Castres on Friday night came through Leinster's system. They don't need to be inducted or oriented or pointed in the right direction. A raft of them are, like the handful in Munster, finding their feet at the same time and thriving on the confidence that comes from that.

The battle for Leinster now - and indeed Munster - is to hang on to them, and their coach, long enough to make it pay. In the volatile world of professional sport that will be an uphill struggle.

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