Hugh Farrelly: Shame so few rising stars stay out West
IF Jamie Hagan and Fionn Carr were still with Connacht, they would be gearing up to face Toulouse at the Sportsground tomorrow and both the province and the players would be better served.
Of course, if my Aunt Aggie had testes she could have been a better darts player (and parallel parker), but, hypotheticals aside, there is no disputing the fact that the issue of player distribution around the provinces continues to dog Irish rugby.
Solutions to the conundrum are hard to find, but it boils down to individual players (and agents) taking responsibility for their own careers. There is no point blaming the IRFU, the freedom of movement and employment laws mean players cannot be prevented from making these switches.
Personal motivations are exactly that, but players need to assess the bigger picture also -- beyond the desire to work in a particular environment or with a bigger franchise. While the practicalities of providing financially for the future, given the relative short time span of their jobs, can never be discoun- ted, the bottom line for produc- tive rugby careers is game time.
With only four professional sides to choose from in Ireland, 60 starting places every weekend, players need to operate where they have the best opportunity of regular rugby. Hagan and Carr did not know Connacht would be in the Heineken Cup this season, nor did their representatives, but they had to have known that the opportunities for regular starts would be reduced by leaving Connacht.
Mike Ross is on Leinster's books and is, by some distance, Ireland's first-choice tighthead so, at best, Hagan could only hope to start games when Ross was unavailable and then make the most of cameos off the bench. At Connacht, he was a guaranteed starter in the No 3 jersey, which was good for him and for Irish rugby to the point where he had justifiable claims on a place in Ireland's World Cup squad.
Likewise Carr, a regular starter and prolific try-scorer (in a Connacht side that was operating at the lower end of the Magners League table), landed into an environment packed with quality three-quarters.
Players have access to advice and recommendations from the union before making these decisions, but the final call is their own and these were two bad calls.
You wonder also about Ian Nagle signing a contract last January to stay with Munster for another two years. After his stunning display for the province against Australia last year, the second-row attracted outside interest, notably from Northampton, but opted to stay with his native province.
Paul O'Connell, Donncha O'Callaghan and Mick O'Driscoll may be in their early 30s and coming towards the end of long and illustrious careers, but they are far from spent, while Donnacha Ryan is a coming force in that position and already has the benefit of international experience.
Players speak about the value of "doing your time" and learning from more experienced colleagues, but Courtney Lawes benefited from being exposed to regular senior rugby at a young age with Northampton and is now rated one of the finest second-rows in the business at only 22 and with 13 caps and a World Cup already behind him.
Dominic Ryan also penned a two-year contract with Leinster last May, but his excellent prospects are also hampered by the strength of competition in the back-row, where Shane Jennings, at 30, is the eldest of a quality collection that includes Sean O'Brien, Jamie Heaslip, Kevin McLaughlin and Rhys Ruddock.
We are back in Auntie Aggie territory here again, but if Nagle was with Leinster, he could be playing Heineken Cup against Glasgow on Sunday and if Ryan was on Munster's books he would be a live contender for a starting slot at openside.
Both would command regular game time at Connacht, who have a commendable record of leaving players in a better international state of readiness than they found them, as Jerry Flannery, Eoin Reddan and Bernard Jackman have readily testified.
Connacht have hit the big time with their participation in the Heineken Cup. Last weekend's performance against Harlequins was frustrating in that it produced no points return, but hugely encouraging in showing that the 'forgotten' province can live with, and rattle, the big boys.
They are ready to do the same against Toulouse tomorrow and the likes of Eoin Griffin, Dave McSharry and Tiernan O'Halloran can only benefit from this exposure. It is just a pity there are not more talented, indigenous players along for the ride.