Monday 17 December 2018

Schools, player management and provinces - How Ireland got their act together and became New Zealand's biggest rivals

Rugby's version of the Celtic Tiger has become one of the most fascinating success stories in global game

IRFU chief executive Philip Browne introduces Joe Schmidt as Ireland’s new head coach back in 2013 and the team’s fortunes have mainly been on an upward curve ever since. Photo: Sportsfile
IRFU chief executive Philip Browne introduces Joe Schmidt as Ireland’s new head coach back in 2013 and the team’s fortunes have mainly been on an upward curve ever since. Photo: Sportsfile

Tom Cary

The headquarters of the Irish Rugby Football Union are not much to look at. A nondescript three-storey building on Lansdowne Road, a few hundred metres from the Aviva Stadium where Ireland take on New Zealand tonight, it does not strike you as the nerve-centre for one of sport's superpowers.

Nobody could quibble with that description of Irish rugby these days, though.

From European champions Leinster, who continue to sweep all before them, to Joe Schmidt's superbly-drilled team who not only claimed a Six Nations Grand Slam in 2018 but won a first Test series in the southern hemisphere for more than 39 years, success is seeping from every pore.

The IRFU is even making money, posting profits of €1.2 million this year.

13 of Schmidt’s matchday 23 went to one of the schools who compete for the Leinster Schools Senior Cup. Photo: Sportsfile
13 of Schmidt’s matchday 23 went to one of the schools who compete for the Leinster Schools Senior Cup. Photo: Sportsfile

The rise of rugby's version of the Celtic Tiger is one of the modern game's great success stories.

From being a nation who had not won a Six Nations title in a quarter of a century prior to 2009, Ireland have now scooped three of the last five and sit second in the world rankings, laying legitimate claim to being the most credible threat to the All Blacks at next year's World Cup.

Indeed, had England managed to hold on against the All Blacks at Twickenham last weekend, Ireland would be battling it out for the No 1 spot tonight.

Sitting in his corner office on the third floor, Philip Browne, the union's longstanding chief executive, is trying to pinpoint exactly how we have arrived at this juncture.

"It is pretty extraordinary when you look back now," he concedes.

"When I first joined as a volunteer 25 years ago, if we beat England it was seen as a good year. We were generally playing for the last two spots in the Five Nations."

There have been, Browne concludes, three distinct phases to Irish rugby's evolution during the professional era. The first - and "most important" - was the original decision to go down the provincial route after the game turned professional in 1995.

"There was a lot of pressure from the clubs," the 57-year-old explains.

"We had a pretty vibrant club scene back then. The top games in the All Ireland League were attracting crowds of maybe 5,000, particularly in Limerick.

"And there was some pressure that the union should put money into them and they would effectively contract the players.

"Fortunately, we had had some pretty wily, strong-willed characters… Syd Millar, Tom Kiernan, Ronnie Dawson - former Lions all - who effectively said, 'No, we've got four provinces. We'll use the provincial system'. And we will contract the players centrally."

That decision was to prove a masterstroke, although it took a while to bear fruit.

Ireland had been one of the last bastions of amateurism. At the famous 1995 meeting in Paris that changed the face of rugby forever, Millar and Kiernan were sent over to oppose the motion. They swiftly realised they were powerless to stop the impending juggernaut.

"The irony is we had what was called the Amateurs Committee and overnight it turned into the Contracts Committee!" Browne chuckles.

"It was all very half-baked to begin with, though. I think we started off with four or five full-time players. It took us a few years to work out what to do."

The catalyst came in 1999 ("our annus horribilis", says Browne) when Warren Gatland's team were dumped out by Argentina in a quarter-final play-off.

It was then that the second phase of Irish rugby's evolution kicked in, with talismanic figures such as Keith Wood, Ireland's shaven-headed captain and hooker, who had gone over to England to play for Harlequins, demanding the IRFU up its game.

"Keith, ultimately, was the player who said 'I'm fed up operating in an amateur system'," Browne acknowledges. "Who argued we had to keep out best players."

The noughties brought about a complete overhaul, with first Eddie O'Sullivan and then Declan Kidney running the national team, and influential figures such as Michael Cheika coming in at Leinster.

O'Sullivan, the former Gaelic footballer who had coached Ireland U-21s and the US national team, emerges with plenty of credit.

It was O'Sullivan who campaigned for the player management system from which Ireland still benefit today; the deal being Ireland's players would get one month's holiday every year, an eight-week pre-season on their return and no more than 25 games per season in total.

Naturally, it caused huge tensions, with the provinces suddenly finding they were not getting their biggest stars for more than a handful of regular-season games.

But with the IRFU controlling not only the players but also the senior management within every province - the head coach, the CEO, the head of S&C, head of medicine, head of physio and academy manager are all now on central contracts - they had to fall into line.

"The pay-off was twofold though," argues O'Sullivan in a phone interview.

"Firstly, it prolonged the careers of the players. You see guys like Donnacha O'Callaghan retiring last year at 39. Peter Stringer at 40. Paul O'Connell. BOD (Brian O'Driscoll), Ronan O'Gara… they all played over 100 times for Ireland. But the other thing was that when it got to the business end of the season, the players weren't injured. It took a while to convince the clubs of that."

The third and final piece of the jigsaw, according to Browne, came in 2013, following a root-and-branch review of Irish rugby.

Joe Schmidt was appointed head coach and David Nucifora, Schmidt's boss at the Auckland-based Blues a few years earlier, was made performance director.

Again, it was to prove a masterstroke. Until then, Browne says, performance decisions had been decided by committee.

"But high performance is not about reaching consensus".

Nucifora now oversees everything from the academies to strength and conditioning, taking a holistic view, trying to ensure the system is equitable, trying to ensure Schmidt has depth in every department.

It was Ireland's inability to cope with injuries to key players which scuppered them at the last World Cup. This time around the cupboard feels better stocked.

The system is not perfect, of course. Leinster are arguably overly dominant; their much-vaunted schools system providing the bulk of Ireland's squad.

Thirteen of Schmidt's matchday 23 to face New Zealand on Saturday went to one of the schools who compete annually for the Leinster Senior Schools Cup. Ireland's once vibrant club game, meanwhile, is withering.

"It's a concern," Browne concedes. "People don't have the time any more. But it's not an issue confined to Ireland. It's societal."

In that respect, the failure of Ireland's 2023 World Cup bid last year was a crushing blow. The impact on a generation of schoolchildren would have been incalculable.

But at the elite end of the game at least, Irish rugby is thriving. And O'Sullivan, for one, can see that trend continuing.

"Look," he says, "Ireland are never going to have a big pool like England from which to pick. But we do have one of the strongest schools systems in the world.

"You put a St Michael's or a Blackrock College against any school team in the world and they'd probably win… And now the academies are really starting to bear fruit.

"They are churning out a gem or two every year, whether it's a (Robbie) Henshaw or a (Garry) Ringrose or a (James) Ryan or a (Jacob) Stockdale... (Jordan) Larmour is the latest. These guys are all under 25 years of age. You only need one or two a year and you're in great shape.

"There have been teething problems along the way but to be fair to the IRFU they kept their eye on the central planks," he adds.

"The control of the players, the structure of the four provinces, and the funding system. I think what we have now is the envy of a lot of countries. You see Wales now trying to get back into that space, but I think the horse has bolted in England, in France. There's no chance now."

Mick Dawson, the Leinster CEO, agrees, noting in particular the recent decision in England to extend the domestic season until mid-to-late June, with guaranteed in-season breaks.

"The Premiership are trying to create this myth that 'we'll have all our best players playing all the time and they'll still play for England,'" he says, sitting in his office at Leinster's facility on the UCD campus.

"I don't feel smug about it though. We've had our share of teething problems. The relationship between the provinces and the union has improved a lot but there was a Mexican standoff for a long while.

"I think we've just reached a point where we have accepted reality. And our supporters have accepted it. The big stars are not going to play PRO14 every week."

Browne smiles. Ireland may have lost out on the 2023 World Cup. Schmidt and Nucifora may well move on. Schmidt is due to inform the IRFU whether he will continue beyond RWC 2019 at the end of the month.

But the fact that Ireland can go into tonight's match against New Zealand with high hopes of winning, and expect to make "at least the semi-finals" of the next two World Cups (according to the IRFU's latest strategic plan), is proof of the progress Irish rugby has made under his watch.

He believes the set-up now, with the quality of the coaching and technical staff which has been put in place over the last five years, could cope with the loss of the main man.

"The great thing is the consistency," he reflects. "You have to remember rugby is the number-four field sport in Ireland. There are more women playing Gaelic football than there are men and women combined playing rugby.

"So we're a small niche sport. But what has happened in the last eight years is we have become consistent. Joe's win record is around 70 per cent. That was unimaginable in the 1990s." (© Daily Telegraph, London)

Telegraph.co.uk

Sport Newsletter

The best sport action straight to your inbox every morning.

Editor's Choice

Also in Sport