Monday 11 November 2019

Bottom line hurts Connacht


Stalemate in Europe, stand-off in Ireland. On Wednesday, we noted the press release from ERC that had its chairman Jean Pierre Lux implying it was time the unions rode to the rescue, for the clubs are drifting further apart on the future of European rugby. And the next day we had Joe Schmidt in Leinster and Tom Sears in Connacht going at it from opposite sides of the country.

The international impasse is more important, but less interesting. We had hoped the English/French clubs might make a move one way or the other at the ERC stakeholders meeting in London, but instead they effectively stood still, as did the Celts and Italians.

That no new date has been fixed for the next get-together is supposed to illustrate the great distance between the parties. Rather it highlights how little grasp there is on the advance of time. At this rate next season's Heineken Cup will kick off with clubs not knowing what they are playing for. By then, we look forward to the emergence of a sugar daddy in the west of Ireland, for that is Connacht's best chance of taking the leap they need to compete.

The catalyst for the Sears/Schmidt spat was the signing of Mike McCarthy. By far the most interesting aspect was Schmidt's comment about Connacht needing to create an environment in which people wanted to stay. It was the first time in two and a half years that the coach, widely regarded as the nicest man on planet rugby, laced up a boot and kicked someone in public. It was accurate, if a little unkind.

Connacht's Catch 22 has changed, but it's still a bind: it used to be that you couldn't jump into the Ireland squad from a platform in the west, now it's about medals. Mike McCarthy is heading east because he is 31 and if he is to win a Heineken Cup medal, or indeed a Pro12 one, he has a much better chance of doing it with Leinster. He won't be materially any richer for the change.

Tom Sears is upset, but Schmidt is not his problem. And neither are the IRFU protocols. He said on the Connacht website on Thursday: "We do not believe the protocols are sufficient to serve Irish rugby well and I know the IRFU have discussed reviewing these in the near future."

The union maintain otherwise.

"The representative games committee looked at the issue a few meetings ago and decided that the protocols – which were agreed to by all four provinces – should remain as they are," rugby director Eddie Wigglesworth said.

Currently if Leinster want to sign a player from another province then their chief executive contacts his opposite number; the player is spoken to by both parties; then the player makes up his mind.

So how do Leinster do it? Because they are based in Dublin, and after a lot of faffing around in the early part of the century began to use that simple expedient to build a commercial and fan base. They virtually sold out Lansdowne Road yesterday. That gives them the cash to buy in recruits from abroad, which enhances their success rate.

Luckily for Connacht, they are not restricted by the National Succession Strategy, which limits the other three provinces to having only one non-Ireland eligible player – between them – in any one position. So if they could get the investment to buy big, they could do just that.

Meantime, the Heineken window could close at any time, while still Connacht remain vulnerable to players leaving for brighter lights. Clearly some of these decisions have been unwise, but McCarthy's doesn't look like one of them.

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