Wednesday 19 June 2019

Alan Quinlan: 'English clubs take Irish lessons'

Rugby may be rowing in one direction on these shores but across the pond a tug-of-war is threatening to cause all sorts of problems down the line - even though some of the solutions are right on their doorstep

Alan Quinlan

Alan Quinlan

Ten months ago, ahead of Ireland's Grand Slam decider in London, there was something very different in the air.

This was a glorious opportunity for England to spoil Ireland's party on their own turf, just as Joe Schmidt's side had done 12 months previously, never mind the fact that this was shaping up as a fascinating bout between two northern hemisphere heavyweights.

However, as I bumped into many former England players on the pre-match circuit, as is the norm, the usually salubrious chatter from the hosts was drowning in resignation.

Most of those former players were the kind of men you would associate with playing heads-up, chest-out rugby.

These were guys who took great pride in marking their Twickenham territory, a sense of grandeur oozing from their pores as 'Swing Low, Sweet Chariot' boomed around south-west London. They had levels of self-assurance that many Irish players could only dream of.

I couldn't get my head around their levels of despondency last March. Sure, the wind had already been knocked out of their sails by Scotland and France but Eddie Jones was still able to pick a side for St Patrick's Day that, on paper at least, had more than enough ability to cause Ireland problems.

Incessant

The former England players were gracious in their praise of Ireland too, it must be said, but the overwhelming feeling was that the previous six months of the incessant club and international season had taken its toll on Jones's players, not to mention the talk that the Australian had worked his squad to the bone in the days leading up to the March 17 showdown.

Click to enlarge
Click to enlarge

There was a time when players were happy to play as many games as they could, but one rugby match is no longer an 80-minute arm-wrestle for which the preparation consists of a brief team-talk, a bit of strapping, a slap on the back, and you were ready to go.

Playing professional rugby is a privilege but the pre- and post-match analysis; tactical, gym and recovery sessions; and the ferocious intensity of the modern game have made it more and more challenging, mentally and physically.

Players in England have already started to voice their discontent with the demands being placed on them; Joe Marler retired from international rugby to spend more time with his young family, and Billy Vunipola has said he would be happy to earn less money if it meant he had to play fewer games.

If something is not done by "the suits" in charge of the game to address the issue, Vunipola suggested a lockout-type strike by the players, as we've seen in the NBA and NFL, could be on the cards down the line.

I weighed up the playing time of three Irish players (Johnny Sexton, Tadhg Furlong and James Ryan) against three of their opposite numbers in the England side (Owen Farrell, Kyle Sinckler and Maro Itoje) for club and country thus far in 2018/'19 and even at this stage of the season, as you can see from the panel (right), the difference in demands is obvious.

A storm of discontent is brewing in the English game and if changes aren't made - such as reducing the season length, or bringing in stronger player-welfare measures - then something nasty could erupt.

It probably doesn't help when England's top players line out against their Irish opponents - for club or country - knowing that their opposite number has been carefully managed throughout the season in order to peak on the biggest days.

The Irish system isn't perfect but it certainly seems to treat the players as the prized asset, not as a commodity that can make money for a club owner.

While Irish rugby appears to be rowing in one direction, the overall game in England is being hamstrung by an internal tug of war.

Some narrow-minded commentators across the Irish Sea continue to bemoan the advantages the Irish system affords our players, in terms of welfare and performance, rather than suggesting that the successful blueprint should be analysed and the appropriate elements adapted to the English game.

The Irish provincial system, under the umbrella of the IRFU, obviously lends itself to a more self-sufficient model but the RFU and the independent English clubs need to work together to stop the rot before it gets out of hand.

Last weekend Wasps' director of rugby Dai Young complained that the £7m (€8m) salary cap was preventing the English teams from competing against the Irish provinces in Europe, although this week his club have already announced the signings of two more All Blacks - Malakai Fekitoa and Jeff Toomaga-Allen.

Suggesting that financial restrictions are holding English sides back, considering the higher wages in the Premiership than the PRO14 and the bleeding of money at many of England's major clubs, is simply deflecting from obvious failures around player welfare and in the development of one of the game's biggest talent pools.

Young suggested that the only way to keep up with Leinster is to throw more money at more players, despite the fact that the reigning European champions have built most of their depth with strong schools, clubs and academy systems.

England have featured in nine of the 11 U-20 World Cup finals, winning three, and have prevailed in eight of the 15 U-20 Six Nations Championships.

They boast the biggest player pool in the world so should have more than enough numbers to fill the rosters of their 12 top-tier teams, bolstered by overseas signings, with their own conveyor belt of talent.

Consider that in the 2016 U-20 World Cup final England romped to a 45-21 victory against a promising Irish side that contained Jacob Stockdale, now one of the best wingers in the world on current form; Ryan, arguably the best second-row in the game, and Andrew Porter, a tighthead prop who can more than hold his own in the international arena despite switching across the front-row just over two years ago.

That trio have already amassed 28 Test caps between them. Faith has been shown in youth and their development graphs have rocketed since the U-20 grade, not stagnated.

The remarkable England team from that 2016 final, one of the best U-20 sides in recent memory, is yet to yield a single senior cap, although Jack Singleton or Ollie Thorley may change that this spring after being named in Jones's squad earlier this week.

When you add in the fact that Jordan Larmour has nine caps to his name and is a year younger than the Irish trio mentioned above, you have to ask why England's young players are not making the transition to the senior game as quickly. Are they not getting the opportunities, or is there an issue with the development path?

Switched

England's previous U-20 World Cup win was in 2014, when their side, captained by Itoje, included Billy Burns and Ross Moriarty, the former obviously now at Ulster and in the Ireland picture while the latter subsequently switched to Wales and went on the 2017 Lions tour to New Zealand.

Moriarty may well have gone on to wear white at senior level had he decided to stay on that track but Burns and Mike Haley - who were both name-checked by Schmidt this week - are now in the Ireland picture while England-born Will Addison has been a revelation since his switch to Belfast and if fit is almost certain to make the plane to Japan.

When you have so many players you are bound to miss a few gems - I'm sure Chelsea regret releasing a 14-year-old Declan Rice - but the talent-identification process in England has some obvious flaws too.

England's rugby chiefs must look at the Irish provincial switches of Joey Carbery, Andrew Conway, John Cooney and Jordi Murphy with envy but instead of complaining about the Irish strength in depth the clubs need to do something about it.

Saracens have invested heavily in their academy and it is no coincidence that they continue to successfully juggle their Premiership and European ambitions.

And it's just as well because, barring a shock result from Exeter this evening, they will be the sole English side - out of the initial seven - to reach the quarter-finals of the Champions Cup for the second successive season.

Jones may yet get his team to peak in a World Cup year but in the medium to long term English rugby is facing some serious problems.

If only they could see that some of the solutions are right on their doorstep.

Irish Independent

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