Nation before province
Micro-managing Ireland's premier players may hurt the provinces but that is an acceptable sacrifice in the interests of World Cup achievement, writes Hugh Farrelly
THE World Cup 2011 player management scheme -- pragmatic planning or needless meddling?
There are mixed opinions on the issue -- which has dominated the start to the Irish rugby season -- and considerable frustration among the affected parties.
First off, players want to play -- otherwise they would be called 'trainers' -- and being forced to look on from the sidelines when fit and able is never an easy assignment. Leinster centre Gordon D'Arcy, whose return to action was delayed until last weekend's disappointing reverse in Treviso, voiced his frustration a couple of weeks ago when he was not involved in the squad to face Cardiff Blues.
"Not playing this week is a real disappointment," said D'Arcy. "It's hard, because if anyone knows how my body is, I do. I know I play better with the amount of games I play. I'm not overly mad on training. I've done my pre-season now, I'd just love to be playing."
The provincial coaches naturally want their best players available and the situation is further complicated by the fact that the system is not merely match-based but also involves time on the pitch.
This became a live issue in Leinster's opening Magners League match away to Glasgow when Jamie Heaslip, having his customary barnstorming effect on proceedings, had to be withdrawn after 60 minutes with the visitors leading 16-9 -- it coincided with a Glasgow resurgence, and the hosts went on to win 22-19.
"It wasn't ideal (taking Heaslip off)," said Leinster coach Joe Schmidt afterwards. "Jamie is one of the team leaders and a player who can swing a game. He probably should have come off a little bit earlier but once we lost John Fogarty (to a yellow card) I probably slipped up and lost my time management and he stayed on a bit longer."
In these circumstances, it is hard to build consistency with constantly changing formations and different training programmes but, Leinster aside, the provinces have got off to an encouraging start to the season.
Connacht, as the province with the fewest frontline internationals, are least affected and have been able to pick largely the same side for their opening three Magners League matches, benefiting to the tune of 10 points and a top-four position in the table.
Ulster have fewer players falling under the scheme's influence than either Munster or Leinster and, with their coterie of heavy-hitting South Africans, are equipped to cope, as their 100pc start suggests.
And table-topping Munster have coped extremely well, with their squad depth coming through strongly despite significant injury issues and player restrictions. It has created a welcome selection headache for coach Tony McGahan when he has his full squad available.
It is Leinster who have suffered most. While Munster been without their injured captain Paul O'Connell, there are plenty of strong, experienced figures to provide leadership in his absence -- Ronan O'Gara, Donncha O'Callaghan, Denis Leamy and Alan Quinlan to name four.
Leinster have missed their captain Leo Cullen badly. Cullen's steadying influence on the province's progress over the past two seasons has been profound and he was the catalyst for the hard edge that was the foundation of their 2009 Heineken Cup triumph.
Schmidt knew he would have to tap into Leinster's younger contingent this season and, while there is plentiful talent in those ranks, they are short on experience.
Thus, with no Cullen, and the likes Heaslip and Brian O'Driscoll absent under time supervision rules, as happened in Treviso, Leinster are short on leadership and they looked rudderless last weekend.
Victor Costello soldiered for many years at No 8 for Leinster and Ireland, and believes in the ultimate goals of the player management system, accepting that the provinces have to come second to the national interest.
However, Costello says it is essential that Ireland coach Declan Kidney and his management team take player input into account and acknowledge that different players require different handling.
"This is obviously coming from the last World Cup when everyone was genuinely banjaxed when it came around," said Costello. "It's the old story of club or country. In 2007, we got it wrong and it was obvious in the run-up to the World Cup, when they played Italy in Belfast, that the players had run out of steam before it even got going.
"It is a good idea but very frustrating for the coaches and players at club level. Players always want to play and most of the provinces have competition in all the positions so if you're not playing, preferably every week, you could lose your spot and that's obviously going to affect your Irish position as well. So, you're damned if you do and you're damned if you don't. It's a very, very delicate situation.
"But it is essential that players are looked at individually because it's a horses for courses situation. Some guys need to play more to get their form up and keep them at a high level mentally and physically, while others don't and can be protected more.
"My issue is that I don't know how you decide how much is enough in terms of matches or minutes. I'm not saying they (the Ireland management) are not qualified to do that but there is a lot more to rugby and a rugby player than just the physical side; there's a mental issue, there's a confidence issue, there's a skills issue.
"Players have to play with their mates, the guys who they work with from day to day. If I'm training with Reggie Corrigan or Malcolm O'Kelly or Trevor Brennan and then I'm saying, 'alright lads, great training today, best of luck at the weekend' and I'm watching on the sideline, you don't get the same buzz, the same winning formula.
"To a certain extent there's an element of the provinces sucking it up but I hope player input is coming into it too and consideration of where their teams would be in the respective competitions, ie if they need to win a big game in the Magners or Heineken.
"Ultimately, the IRFU are the paymasters and the World Cup is the pinnacle of every four-year cycle. Deccie and (Ireland manager) Paul McNaughton know this and are going to protect players whatever way they can."
That is the key point. This system is far from ideal from a provincial point of view, but Ireland comes first. While an Irish province winning the Magners League or Heineken Cup next May would be welcome -- particularly if it helps players build towards New Zealand 2011 a few months later -- those trophies pale into insignificance when compared to Ireland achieving something meaningful at the World Cup for the first time.
In quantifiable terms, that means a debut appearance in the semi-finals which, realistically, requires victory over Australia in the second pool game to set up an easier quarter-final.
The Wallabies had a mixed Tri Nations and are a team in development, but there is an array of young talent in their squad that will have an extra layer of nous when they face the Irish on September 17 next year.
The southern hemisphere nations have a distinct advantage when it comes to World Cup preparation, with none of the player-management, time-juggling issues of their northern rivals. They go from the Super 15 into the Tri Nations and then straight into the World Cup with no overlap or club-v-country issues to deal with.
Ireland's task is to negotiate their way through a full northern hemisphere season and arrive in New Zealand in a year's time with a full squad of frontline players who are not only fresh, but battle-hardened on the back of four warm-up fixtures.
It's a big ask by any standards and the player management scheme has been designed to maximise Ireland's chances of reaching those goals. As Heaslip noted recently, Kidney's coaching record "speaks for itself" and he deserves to have his judgment backed on this issue.
The provinces may well suffer as a consequence, but that is an acceptable sacrifice -- as long as Ireland make it to the last four of the World Cup.
Another premature exit, however, and we could have a post-mortem even more rancorous than 2007.