Easterby calls on IRFU to review player management rules
Leinster manager Guy Easterby has called on the IRFU to review its rules around player management to account for the tightened post-Six Nations schedule and meritocracy in the Guinness Pro12.
However, IRFU chief executive Philip Browne says it is up to performance director David Nucifora to manage the workload of the frontline Ireland internationals and insisted that the primacy of the national team will continue.
This season is the first in which the Champions Cup knockout stages are run off in six weeks, reducing the amount of time Leinster coach Matt O'Connor has had to prepare his frontline players for their quarter-final against Bath and Sunday's semi-final against Toulon.
It is understood that the provincial coaches can only play their centrally contracted players in a maximum of eight regular-season league games in each campaign, meaning O'Connor was faced with a choice between playing his front-liners against the Dragons last Sunday or against Ulster tomorrow week.
He rested the likes of Jamie Heaslip and Rob Kearney and suffered a defeat in Newport - a result that leaves his side's chances of reaching the Pro12 play-offs hanging by a thread.
With next season's European seeding determined by league performance, it will have a big impact next season.
"Nineteen of our squad have played full international rugby for Ireland (this season)," Easterby said at an event to promote the Pro12 final in Belfast on May 30. "Of those 19 players, they have on average played just over six Pro12 games this season and that clearly is an issue.
"It can't not have an effect on you. You find things out as the season unfolds with the new structure. If that means it leads to a discussion at the end of the season about how it can be improved, how changes can be made that aren't detrimental to anyone, but work well for everyone, then discussions will take place.
"You're not going to get it right the first year. As long as people are prepared to have discussions, I think we can make it a working format."
However, Browne said that the national team management are also unhappy with elements of the current arrangement and said that the situation is under continuous review.
"A balance has to be found between managing the players' welfare and ensuring that we are successful at international level," he said.
"That's where the major increases in revenue are found and the provinces have to maintain their ambitions to be successful.
"If there was an easy answer it would have been found by now.
"It is continually assessed - the person who manages that balance is David Nucifora, who works closely with all the coaches around the provinces and national team and tries to balance up the requirements of both.
"But ultimately the national team sits at the top of the tree and it generates most of the money and the reality is that it cannot afford to fail."
Easterby and Browne were in agreement that the Pro12 must not be allowed to fall behind rival leagues in England and France, where clubs are growing in financial strength on the back of bumper television deals.
"The world of rugby is changing quite quickly around us and we just need to make sure that we stay abreast of that, make sure the game doesn't get away on the provinces or on our league," Easterby said.
"The profile of our league, Sky Sports coming in, all of those things; we need to continue to drive that.
"We're not taking our eye off the ball in terms of a league, but we have to be aware that we can't afford to stand still and, if that means having conversations and making changes to the current structure in Ireland, Wales, Scotland or Italy or between the league as a whole then those conversations need to take place, because without them you look up and the Premiership and French are running off in the distance."
Browne echoed Easterby's comments.
"We've got to make sure that the Pro12 works," he said. "One of the most important things we've done over the last couple of years is to move to the Sky contract for the Pro12 and splitting up the television rights because that has given the competition exposure across the UK.
"It's about building profile, building exposure, building the brand in the UK because that's where the answer to the whole commercial question lies."
One positive for the league is that the decision to host next month's final in Belfast's Kingspan Stadium is proving popular, with just 400 tickets remaining on general sale. Each of the participants will receive an allocation of 2,000 tickets each.