Sunday 18 March 2018

Henshaw future in new chief's hands

Battle lines drawn as Nucifora to rule on star's potential Leinster switch

Connacht's Robbie Henshaw
Connacht's Robbie Henshaw
Kieran Marmion, who will be playing outside of Europe's top tier next season
David Nucifora, who is expected to make the move to Ireland this summer
Leinster mahager Guy Easterby
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

David Nucifora might want to pack a helmet when he finally makes his long-anticipated move to Ireland this summer.

While his appointment to the position of performance director of the IRFU has yet to be confirmed, it is widely expected that the former Australia hooker, who was head coach at the Auckland Blues when Joe Schmidt was an assistant, will take over the newly created, all-powerful role in June.

Advertised back in May when the Union set out to recruit what chief executive Philip Browne described as "an exceptional individual" to "develop integrated, high-performance systems that will be implemented across the representative game", the appointment has been delayed due to the uncertainty over European rugby's future.

With that resolved, the new man is expected to start this summer when he will be charged with managing Schmidt and the four provincial coaches from next season.

While he appears to be coming in at a time when the garden is rosy, there are immediate issues to be dealt and the jostling for position has already begun.

The role of Connacht is expected to be high up on the agenda as the free movement of players between the provinces to suit the need of the national team comes up for discussion, and the case of Robbie Henshaw is likely to be seen as something of a benchmark.


While Connacht coach Pat Lam urged young players to move west to gain experience earlier this season, the fact that Henshaw and Kieran Marmion will be playing their rugby outside of Europe's top tier next season is likely to be seen as a problem that could affect their international ambitions, with Schmidt recently questioning the merits of run-of-the-mill Pro12 games as preparation for Test rugby.

Union president Pat Fitzgerald opened something of a can of worms last week when he said Henshaw's future would be determined by Schmidt's need alone, amid rumours that he could switch to Leinster.

The Pro12 champions have stated their admiration for a player who played minor football for Westmeath and competed in the Leinster Colleges competition for Marist in GAA, while simultaneously winning a Connacht Schools Senior Cup and representing Connacht at underage.

In November , the youngster committed his future to Connacht until 2016 on an IRFU contract, despite being strongly courted by Munster and Ulster towards the end of last season.

Even last week, he reiterated his commitment publicly – but the story won't go away.

"He's an IRFU contracted player," Leinster manager Guy Easterby said on St Patrick's Day. "If Robbie Henshaw is happy at Connacht, which he obviously is because he has just signed a two-year contract, who are we to say 'you're better off at Leinster'?"

But it might not be their call.

Connacht were so startled by Fitzgerald's comments that they released quotes from Lam at the weekend as he reiterated his stance that Henshaw was happy out west.

"There are good lines of communication between us," he said of his relationship with Schmidt, who was in Galway last week. "We talk regularly on games and players and he is especially supportive of the Connacht rugby programme going forward."

Lam is on record as recommending young players who are sitting in academies at the stronger provinces to come west for an opportunity and has actively pursued some options, but the feeling in those provinces is that the flow must work both ways.

Ireland second-row Mike McCarthy moved east last season but he was at pains to stress what playing for Connacht did for him.

"They're obviously benefiting now. Robbie and Kieran Marmion are in the (Ireland) squad and playing well. Wherever they are, if they are playing well they are going to be in the Irish set-up," he said yesterday.

There is currently an abundance of young talent at Leinster whose quality production line was re-emphasised yesterday when the Ireland U-18s named 12 starters from the province's schools.

Easterby argued that the Blues had been forced to use 50 players in a campaign that has them top of the Pro12 with three games to go, but with many of those playing B&I Cup when the business end comes around, there is an argument for moving them elsewhere for more meaningful game time.

With Nucifora coming from a similar role in Australia where players switch between Super Rugby franchises with greater regularity, he will face a challenge to shift the mindset given provincial loyalties are so strong.

Still, there are those at Leinster who are unwilling to wait. Darren Hudson, Jack O'Connell and Conor Gilsenan have run out of patience and decided to plough their own furrows with moves to England next season.

Others will go to Connacht, while the movement between Leinster and Munster has been relatively steady in recent years, with Andrew Conway heading south in search of opportunities last summer.

That was his choice, but from this summer the new sheriff in town could have the final say. The IRFU are the paymasters, after all, and the national need is the driver of the entire game.

Feathers will be ruffled, the battle lines are being drawn and he hasn't even been appointed yet.

Irish Independent

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