It has been a period of highs and lows in Irish rugby of late -- disappointments and near triumphs at international level and contrasting performances from our provinces in European competition.
We've seen what we can be capable of on any given day. Munster in Perpignan, Leinster in Northampton, or Connacht in Toulouse, not to mention Ireland versus New Zealand. The pot of gold at rainbow's end, however, is sustainability, the capacity to consistently replicate our better performances.
Management of our limited pool of players is a long-established issue for Irish rugby and it's back in focus with the statements from the new controlling consortium at London Irish around their intention to strengthen the 'Irish' element of their squad, and the attention being paid to Johnny Sexton's early-season travails at Racing Metro. This debate has usually been centred around Connacht, but the emergence of the billionaire French club owners, the increase in international match-day panels to 23 and the ever-increasing rate of attrition at the top level (currently running at approximately 20 per cent of each international squad, on Joe Schmidt's calculations) have combined to give it a renewed interest.
Since his arrival last summer, Connacht's new coach Pat Lam has been outspoken on the difficulties he's experiencing as he strives to attract high-quality players to his western outpost. While they have been successful in recruiting Kiwis of real calibre in the experienced Craig Clarke and the emerging Jake Heenan, Connacht have struggled to attract young Irish players on the fringes of the other provincial squads. Often players prefer to risk being confined to action for their province's 'A' or 'reserve' side in the British & Irish Cup than play for another province in the premier competitions.
Some players who have travelled overseas have also criticised this apparent unwillingness to go in search of first-team rugby. From a national point of view, the crux of the matter is this: operating from such a small base of playing resources, the players we possess who are, or could be, capable of playing at international level must be be leveraged to the maximum. For them to achieve their potential they should be playing as regularly as possible at the highest level. Regrettably, too many seem content to languish in the comfort zone of the lesser competition and, as a consequence, in certain positions in some provinces, a logjam of talent is developing.
As with so much that is good in rugby, a possible template for management of playing resources is to be found in New Zealand. Clarke himself, out of favour and down the pecking order early in his career at his home-town franchise, the Wellington Hurricanes, found himself heading to rural Waikato to play for the Chiefs. Brodie Retallick, instrumental in New Zealand's unbeaten 2013 season and Clarke's former second-row partner at the outstanding Chiefs, had himself taken a similar route when some established names were blocking his progress. For the New Zealand Rugby Union, getting the bodies on the pitch regularly is the aim of the game; if our focus is to be on the development of the game nationally, then the New Zealand template is worthy of consideration.
In recent weeks we've seen Cathal Sheridan step in for the injured Conor Murray as Munster's scrumhalf and JJ Hanrahan come up with a wonderful piece of finishing in Perpignan last Saturday. Both illustrate the point well. Sheridan, at 25, has been on the scene for a couple of years at this point, developing steadily with UL Bohemians and Munster 'A' but it is only now that he's announcing himself on the scene. Hanrahan, 21, is a talent well known from his underage exploits but his situation is equally relevant. The question is how much further would they have developed had they been starting games regularly?
Sheridan and Hanrahan are two examples within Munster, and there are others across the provinces. Players like Jordi Murphy, Dominic Ryan (although both have had their injury troubles) and Rhys Ruddock are prime examples at Leinster. Iain Henderson, Craig Gilroy, Paul Marshall, and Stuart Olding are all young Irish internationals of real potential with Ulster who are by no means regular first choices for Mark Anscombe.
Connacht, in particular, have shown the progress that can be made by players given regular opportunities. Matt Healy and Craig Ronaldson, both signed
from Lansdowne over the last two summers, are thriving with regular game time. And would the likes of Rob Henshaw and Kieran Marmion have flourished to the same extent on the limited game time that would have been their lot at one of the bigger provinces?
We've seen it too with some Irish players travelling abroad, away from the structures of the IRFU, really making a name for themselves. Robin Copeland at Cardiff, James Hart at Grenoble, and Shane Monahan at Gloucester are just three who have prospered.
My point is that for players to thrive they need to play regularly, fatigue permitting of course. With so few professional franchises in Ireland, there will inevitably be logjams of players in certain positions -- back-row at Leinster is a good case in point currently. Some provincial supporters won't like to lose top young talent but, as I've said, their Kiwi counterparts don't seem to have a major problem with it; but then the interests of their national team is, and always has been, all-consuming.
Doing more with less requires not only innovative and smart thinking but a degree of ruthlessness too. There's nothing particularly smart or innovative about what I'm suggesting; ruthlessness, however, was always something about which we could learn a thing or two from our friends in New Zealand.