Tuesday 20 November 2018

Rúaidhrí O'Connor: Irish rugby winning the culture wars - for now

Leinster's grow-your-own model in stark contrast to approach in English Premiership

Changing times: Sailosi Tagicakibau casts aside Johnny Sexton during Wasps’ victory over Leinster in 2015, but a lot has changed since. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/SPORTSFILE
Changing times: Sailosi Tagicakibau casts aside Johnny Sexton during Wasps’ victory over Leinster in 2015, but a lot has changed since. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/SPORTSFILE

Rúaidhrí O'Connor

Four years ago, a piece of news began to break into the public domain that simply couldn't occur in Irish rugby. After 147 years in the greater London area, Wasps were moving to the English Midlands to take up residency at Coventry City's Ricoh Arena, 80 miles from their previous home in High Wycombe.

The club is owned by an Irishman, coached by a Welshman and captained by an England international. Within the dressing-room, there are 11 nationalities represented. Their turnover is the highest in the English Premiership and they have the highest wage bill in the competition.

They last won a tournament of note in 2008. They have a big ambitions, but those cost money and, as Neil Francis outlined in these pages yesterday, Wasps' financial position is in a precarious state.

When the two teams met at the beginning of the 2015/'16 campaign, they looked to be moving in very different directions and it was the cash-rich English side on the upward curve.

However, since that record defeat at the RDS, the trajectory has moved in a most unexpected direction.

That season saw the English and French carve up the knockout stages between them and there were genuine fears that the meritocracy-based and less forgiving structure of the re-formed Champions Cup would leave the Irish and their Celtic cousins behind.

If anything, the period since has been a lesson in not rushing to judgement based on the results of one season.

If the image of Leinster and Ulster playing an all-Irish final in Twickenham in 2012 was the straw that broke the Heineken Cup's back, the quarter-finals three seasons ago suggested a bleak outlook for the Irish provinces.

Five English clubs and three French contested the last eight with the PRO12 absent from the closing stages.

Saracens won the title and, when they retained it a year later, they were one of two English clubs in the knockouts while two Irish teams reached the semi-final.

Last season, Sarries were the only English club at the sharp end of the tournament; Munster got back to the semi-final and Leinster won their fourth trophy in 10 seasons.

Eighteen of their match-day squad came through the province's academy, with two hailing from other provinces, one Australian Scott Fardy and two New Zealanders in Jamison Gibson-Park and Isa Nacewa.

If they were a football club, coaches would be flocking to mimic the Leinster model, but the reality is that the Irish provinces are operating under a completely contrasting system to the privately-owned clubs in France and England.

For instance, the idea of Leinster playing anywhere other than their south Dublin base just does not compute.

They must run all overseas signings by IRFU headquarters before getting them over the line, while they are limited in the games their star players can play in.

With the international team paying the majority of the bills, the hierarchy is clear but the system appears to be working - even if the other three provinces are not producing home-grown talent at the same level.

This weekend, the three Irish province in this year's Champions Cup face English opposition and all three operate very different business models.

Unlike many of their rivals, Ulster's opponents Leicester do not have one sole benefactor and are the best supported team in the league; but they still lost almost €800,000 last season as a result of the legacy of their redevelopment of Welford Road.

Mortar

Their investments in bricks and mortar have not come at the expense of the playing budget which comes right up to the salary cap, but they have fallen behind the Premiership's debt-laden leading lights and missed out on the play-offs last season. They haven't been to the Champions Cup knockouts since 2016.

Exeter Chiefs, who welcome Munster to Sandy Park, are perhaps England's model club with a highly productive Academy, a smart recruitment operation and a profit-making model.

Along with Saracens, they are a class apart on the pitch and already the league is looking like a two-horse race - an accusation that couldn't be levelled at the much-maligned Guinness PRO14.

Given the differences in scale, the two countries will always be dealing with a culture clash when it comes to rugby but, while the Irish system is often criticised for its national-team-first approach, it is winning the battle right now on the pitch.

Things can change quickly, particularly when English club owners feel threatened, so this is not a time for complacency despite the ascendancy.

Irish Independent

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