'The system isn't broken' - Joe Schmidt hits back at Leinster in IRFU war of words
There was a time when Joe Schmidt was the man in blue railing at the perceived injustice of the IRFU's player management scheme, but yesterday the Ireland coach had little sympathy for his successor's lamentations over a lack of access to his best players.
Matt O'Connor has been vocal in his criticism of a system that he believes forced him to pick and choose which Guinness Pro12 games his Ireland contingent can play during a difficult run-in, but the national team boss came out strongly in defence of a system he says has improved in his time in charge.
In doing so, the New Zealander escalated a difference of opinion with his former employers on the eve of their do-or-die clash against Ulster, suggesting that the Leinster coach should look closer to home for the reason his side are on the verge of finishing outside the Pro12 top four for the first time since 2004.
Schmidt doesn't often conduct media sessions outside of Test windows, but yesterday he and performance director David Nucifora took the unusual step of inviting the press to a briefing with the purpose of dismissing what they perceive to be "inaccuracies" in the public debate around player management.
Arguing that the welfare scheme, which allows the IRFU manage their key performers' workload through the season, plays a huge role in convincing top players like Sean O'Brien to remain in Ireland and persuading Johnny Sexton to return from France, the duo came armed with statistics to disprove O'Connor's complaints.
The issue has come to a head in recent weeks with the Australian routinely pointing out that he has had his best players available for just 30pc of his matches this season, something the IRFU pair flat-out dispute.
Schmidt said there was no hard and fast maximum number of games his players could play in the league, while he said it was "unequivocally not accurate" to suggest that Leinster had to choose between playing their Ireland players in either their game against the Dragons two weeks ago or tonight's game against Ulster which appears to directly contradict O'Connor.
The issue has particularly affected Leinster recently because they were fighting on two fronts. With the Champions Cup knockouts being run off in the six weeks after the Six Nations, the province have had to juggle their resources to try and keep their play-off hopes alive while attempting to reach a European final.
With last Sunday's semi-final against Toulon sandwiched between the Dragons and Ulster fixtures, O'Connor gambled on a largely second-string side at Rodney Parade and it backfired when they suffered a second defeat to the Welsh region this season. That loss means that another defeat tonight will be the end of the champions' interest in the competition.
That that has occurred during a season in which the Blues have supplied the vast majority of players to the national squad which lost just once and claimed a second successive Six Nations title has not been lost on O'Connor.
However, Schmidt argues that he has done everything possible to release as many players back to the provinces during international windows and says conditions have been similar in other seasons when results have been better.
"It comes back to how you are managing the players and how well is that working," he said. "It's a challenge for provincial coaches to get the best out of their teams all the time when you don't always have the top players available.
"Two years ago (when Schmidt was in charge) through the Six Nations period Leinster got 18 out of 20 available points, last year (with O'Connor at the helm) they got 19 out of 20 available points, this year they got nine out of 20 available points.
"If you look at the teams that were put out through those three years those teams are very similar and have international experience, with guys who have been internationally capped. I think from that perspective the system isn't broken and we're trying to refine it every quarter.
"Every quarter we look at it and every week during the Six Nations when you are focused on trying to get results, focused on the players you have got in camp, I'm talking to the provincial coaches and we're trying to say, 'Look I can get this guy back to you here'. Is that a little bit of a compromise on behalf of the national team? I do believe it is.
"If we have the top 30 players we might get a little more of a seamless preparation into a Test match but I think it is part of what we're trying to contribute to the players' management programme in that we're trying to keep the provinces as competitive as possible, because part of my job description is to try and help the provinces be as competitive as they can be and there is no way that we're trying to obstruct that."
Nucifora backed the system, saying it is integral to Ireland's continued success at all levels.
"Over the last couple of weeks there have been some inaccuracies in what's being said and written about the system," he said. "A lot of that is obviously attributed to Leinster's struggle to qualify for the Pro12 semi-finals.
"The management system is in place not just for the national team, it's in place for the provincial and the national team. By looking after the welfare of the players, we all benefit from that and having them in the best shape they can possibly be."
Nucifora said that O'Connor's 30pc stat is "grossly inaccurate", believing it to be inflated by injury and non-selection.
"When you take injuries and non-selection out of it, that they're available for close on 60pc of the games that they were fit and eligible for selection and ready for," he continued.
"We punch above our weight, we have to look for any advantage we can get over our competitors both to retain talent, to develop talent. So it would be crazy for us to throw away the distinct advantage that we have, that other nations would love to have.
"We're going to continue to evolve this system. We're planning on adding more to it with regards to some ideas we've got with some more science, in our ability to monitor our players all year round and strengthen it.
"It's a massive positive for Irish rugby, provincially and nationally. It's not new. It's been here for a number of years. Over those years, provinces and national teams have managed to win trophies. Hopefully, if we keep improving it, that will continue to be the case."