Youth policy will transfer power away from Munster
Time appears to be running out on Ireland's premier rugby brand, says George Hook
W hen the decision was taken to hold the Heineken Cup final in Paris, the organisers hoped for a French side to be in contention at that stage. The semi-final draw will have the ERC on tenterhooks that the ultimate final can take place. A Toulouse/Munster decider would be the ideal pairing for television, ticket sales, the sponsor and the competition. Leinster may be the holders, but Munster have the wider appeal and nobody, respective fans apart, wants an all-French or all-Irish decider.
Munster continue to defy the realities of their situation. Northampton learned enough in the pool stages to approach a quarter-final with confidence yet submitted weakly when the hard questions were asked. Biarritz, unlike Toulouse, do not have the pressures of the knock-out stages of the French championship to contend with, but they are fragile and Munster know it. If an Irish province is to go to Paris, then the old reliable are the favourites. It may, however, be a last hurrah for the men in red.
Leinster are likely to have a brighter future in the next decade of the competition. Munster are in need of a rebuild, whereas Leinster have more strength in depth. It is in the respective academies that the future of the Irish provinces is being decided.
When the Munster pack lines out in San Sebastian, it will have just one player under 30, James Coughlan substituting for the 29-year-old Denis Leamy. Munster will point to internationals Niall Ronan and Donnacha Ryan as reserves. However, Ryan, despite his elevated status, has had just seven starts this season and Ronan has been selected twice for Heineken Cup games but been much more regular in the Magners League. Interestingly, Tony Buckley, touted as the replacement for John Hayes, will be 30 in October. Hardly a promising beginner.
In the backline too, there are issues of obsolescence. Ronan O'Gara and his regular replacement Paul Warwick have been ever-presents in the Heineken Cup and between them racked up an impressive number of starts in the Magners League. Jeremy Manning, the presumptive replacement for both, is just four months younger than Jonathan Sexton but a lifetime behind the Dubliner in experience. It is an indication of the lack of development in Manning's game that in the last three seasons, he has featured just a quarter of the times that he played in his first two seasons with Munster. It is hardly the preparation for a starting role in the future and makes the signing of foreign players all the more likely.
The paucity of back-up in the Munster squad is in marked contrast to the position at Leinster. The replacement backline in the Pale bristles with talent, like Ian Madigan, Andrew Conway and Fergus McFadden. Sadly, Leinster are no further advanced than their southern competitors at prop forward as Mike Ross shadows the tighthead spot at the tender age of 31.
Leinster, with greater numbers of schoolboy players and a more competitive Schools Cup competition, are always more likely to have a stronger academy group. Happily, however, the schools in both Munster and Leinster are resisting inroads by the professionals to identify and become involved with youngsters still in their mid-teens.
The Leinster Schools Cup final demonstrated that some really innovative coaching is now taking place in the province. It will provide a conveyor belt of exciting talent to the provincial team to add to the riches currently on display. These young players are also much more likely to get exposure at a senior level than their counterparts in Munster.
The Munster brand is huge and its need to continually generate finance to support the signing of high-priced imports means that rarely do the lesser players get an opportunity to shine. Michael Cheika did his province no favours by his misjudged selections last week, but the performance of an inordinately young side against Glasgow on Friday night was a clear indication of the strength in depth of the eastern province.
Munster will, of course, point to the outstanding win by their A side last weekend against Connacht, but the appearance column for the young players in red is dwarfed by the experience being gained by Leinster's back-up players. Devin Toner is a prime example with 45 appearances for Leinster and still not 24 years of age.
Rugby remains a game decided by the middle five of back row and half-backs. Leinster, with Jamie Heaslip, Seán O'Brien and Kevin McLaughlin boasting an average age of 25, will be around for a long time to come. Backed up by Sexton at out-half, the RDS is likely to see more wins than losses.
The situation is much more parlous at Thomond Park and the strategy will clearly be the transfer market rather than home-grown talent. That has its risks, as witnessed by the decision of the estimable Jean de Villiers to return to his homeland to seek a place in RWC 2011. The result is that Munster are left with Lifeimi Mafi for next season as their one front-rank centre. Keith Earls will stultify his international chances if he is forced to play in the centre.
Meanwhile, the new Leinster coach will face a choice of Rob Kearney and Luke Fitzgerald at full-back and the burgeoning superstars in the academy will replace Shane Horgan and eventually Brian O'Driscoll and Gordon D'Arcy. However, as the Toulouse game will no doubt demonstrate, there is always a need for injury cover. The heady days of Felipe Contepomi pushed by Sexton are no more, and not having a short-term quality replacement for next week's eventuality will probably cost Leinster dear.
Munster showed the way in Europe but Leinster will be Ireland's hope over the next decade. The numbers game will be decisive.