Tuesday 22 October 2019

Neil Francis: 'Why should Leinster have to supply the country with players?'

McGrath and Best are at career crossroads ahead of a critical year for Saturday's rivals

Crossroads: The next few months of the season could be defining for both Jack McGrath and Rory Best (pictured). Photo: Sportsfile
Crossroads: The next few months of the season could be defining for both Jack McGrath and Rory Best (pictured). Photo: Sportsfile
Neil Francis

Neil Francis

The state of Maine produces 85pc of all lobsters consumed in the United States of America. That's a lot of lobsters!

Apparently, the sea bed, the ecosystem and the food chain is the best in the world - add in a state-sponsored sustainability programme and the supply from the region is practically inexhaustible.

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If you order a lobster dinner in say Idaho - the creature may have been dead for a good while or, God forbid, it could be served in batter not butter. You know most likely that it has travelled all the way from Maine - it just might be served differently from what the folk in Maine are used to.

That term 'inexhaustible' conjures up words like bounty and plentiful. The Leinster Academy now is charged with producing an inexhaustible supply of players, not just for Leinster, but for the whole country - just wonder how sustainable this is. Leinster were the bulk supplier for Ireland's U-20 Grand Slam this season and have been since the inception of the U-20s programme. How many of them will actually get to play for Leinster?

While we all contemplate the meaning of triumph and loss in a short space of time at international level, the gears keep changing beneath at provincial level as players jostle for advancement while incumbents seek to cement further their hold on their position. We now are entering the theatre of the absurd where Leinster are being told to give away Lions or future Lions - this is unsustainable.

The Jack McGrath trade to Ulster has gone a little quiet recently. I have to confess that I am no closer to the mechanics of that putative deal than anyone else but it does seem that there are many forces at play here.

McGrath has not been himself since he played for the Lions in 2017 and has lost his hard-earned starting position at Leinster and Ireland. We can only go on what we are told which normally has vast swathes of the truth and reliable information left out.

Other than the fact that Joe Schmidt wants McGrath to go to Ulster - why on earth would the player leave Leinster and go north? No player has had the balls to stand up to Schmidt to say no I'd like to take my chances here. Unless McGrath has fallen out of love with Leinster and vice versa, he shouldn't be going anywhere.

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Leaving a club where you are an integral part of the infrastructure for the purposes of picking up 'game-time' is not what it's cracked up to be. Just how much more extra game-time would McGrath get by going to Ulster? Would he get an additional two or three games? Seems to me that McGrath gets plenty of game-time with Leinster. Starting game-time, you say! It is rare that starters in the front-row get past the 55th minute. Sometimes with your front-row stocks less is more. When it comes to rotating Cian Healy and McGrath, does it really matter who gets 50 and who gets 30.

If the argument is about wrestling your starting place back at international level, how much sense does it make to leave a strong successful competitive environment and go to one which is light years behind in every respect. Additional game-time is only of value to you if your team is winning and you are playing well. The blue team wins!

Leinster have Peter Dooley (24) and Ed Byrne (25) - decent players but a long way short of the quality of Jack McGrath. If you trade McGrath to Ulster, you leave yourself very light. Healy is injury-prone and is now being conservatively managed. It makes no sense to trade a Lion and senior Irish international who you have developed and nurtured, and who is coming into his prime, to a rival province.

There is a lot we don't know about the proposed move but Saturday's game should give you an idea of what the move entails. Ulster have managed to move themselves up to second in the pro14 table and have been competitive without being convincing.

Joe Schmidt and Jack McGrath. Photo: Sportsfile
Joe Schmidt and Jack McGrath. Photo: Sportsfile

Ulster's Pool 4 performances though were impressive - particularly the 24-25 victory in Parc y Scarlets. They wobbled against Racing in the Kingspan and again in the away match at Welford Road but got the job done when in previous years they might have folded up the tent which suggests to me that they will be a tad more difficult to subdue this Saturday.

Rory Best was quoted as saying "you want to test yourself against the best" during the week. Ireland's captain has been quoted thus for the last dozen seasons and most times they have furled up the white flag with the red hand conspicuous by its absence.

What about a performance of audacity and bloody-mindedness from Ulster? They are short a few quality players but this could be counter-balanced by what I call the Connacht syndrome where players from Connacht who originally came from Leinster put in one-off superhuman performances to get one over the province that sent them out west.

Ulster's blue contingent will be looking for seats on the plane to Japan. These are the matches you get judged in.

Rory Best will also have something to prove. Best has had a phenomenal career. Anyone who has earned 116 caps, and he really has earned them, is in august company. We consider Keith Wood a legend but in terms of achievements Best leaves him in the shade. In the dying embers of his time on the pitch, Best has an outside chance on two competitions that have eluded him. The Champions Cup and the World Cup are dreadfully difficult competitions to win and sometimes just getting close is the best you will ever do.

I thought Best played ok in the Six Nations - a good distance short from his brilliant performance against the All Blacks in November. The same can be said of the entire team though. Maybe his leadership lacked his usual clarity and direction and if he is to go to Japan, and I think he will have to go, he must bring his experience to bear in a more effective manner.


Swapping out your long-standing popular captain with only six months to go would be cruel. There is, however, a demonstrable difference between sentiment and sentimentality. If Schmidt gets the idea that the team can no longer carry Best because it will impact the team's chances too much then he will cut him as if he never knew him.

Best has a chance to come to Dublin and unseat Leinster and give Schmidt a more than gentle reminder that he is still the man to lead Ireland. On the other hand, a meek capitulation will make for a nervous summer break.

Leinster, I think, are vulnerable. They will have a strong side out on the park but we haven't seen a bit of Tore Andre since the first Wasps game and that beauty of movement and brutish functionality only comes intermittently.

Leinster are 15-point favourites and Ulster will need to remind everyone including themselves that they have what it takes when it comes to these big matches.

This one is not a foregone conclusion.

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