Monday 21 October 2019

Comment: Ireland the real winner as David Nucifora's gamble on provincial transfers starts to pay off

Union's desire to have promising youngsters move provinces bearing fruit after slow start

Trading places: Nick McCarthy (pictured) is to follow the example of John Cooney. Photo: Sportsfile
Trading places: Nick McCarthy (pictured) is to follow the example of John Cooney. Photo: Sportsfile

Rúaidhrí O'Connor

The sound of Kingspan Stadium serenading John Cooney was music to David Nucifora's ears at the end of last season, while he would take great satisfaction when, a few months later, the crowd at Irish Independent Park rose to acclaim a new hero in Joey Carbery.

Perhaps never before have the provincial boundaries meant so little when it comes to who wears the jersey and fans don't seem to be batting an eyelid.

It was feared that the IRFU's desire to see more Irish-qualified players playing in key positions would undermine the very basis for the professional game's success in this country, but performance director Nucifora gambled that on-pitch success would allay such worries.

It looks like he was right.

One of the Australian's missions when he signed on was to break the taboo among players moving provinces to get an opportunity.

Understandably, prospects who grew up supporting Leinster or Munster want to pull on that jersey when they come of age, but there are limited chances and clear bottlenecks in certain positions while rival provinces have shortages.

John Cooney of Ulster. Photo: Sportsfile
John Cooney of Ulster. Photo: Sportsfile

Nucifora wants a fluid system that meets the need of the national team above all else and now it appears players and their advisors are taking decisions that match the union's goals.

Yesterday, Munster added Leinster's third choice scrum-half Nick McCarthy to their ranks for next season and he'll join a number of familiar faces in Limerick with Carbery the most high profile.

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McCarthy may be some way off the national team right now and faces a battle to make sure he does not remain third-choice scrum-half at Munster when he arrives, but at 23 he clearly believes he can become the go-to man in Conor Murray's absence and the bench option when the leading man is fit and available.

With uncertainty around the futures of Duncan Williams and James Hart - at least one of whom is likely to leave - Munster will have locally-produced players Neil Cronin, Jack Stafford and Craig Casey vying with their new signing to back Murray up.

Fans may like having their home-grown heroes on the pitch, but identity tends to fade into the background when teams are winning.

Last Saturday, the team fielded by Johann van Graan featured eight home-grown players and seven who were produced elsewhere. When they secured a famous draw in Exeter, the fans saluted them as one.

The old flag reads 'Irish by birth, Munster by the grace of God' and perhaps they'll see it as divine intervention that an Irish-qualified Englishman, three Leinster ex-pats and three South Africans joined the six Corkmen and two Limerickmen in their starting XV.

Later that evening, Ulster beat Leicester and, again, had eight home-grown players in their starting team. Joining them were two Irish-qualified Englishmen, four Leinstermen and Springbok Marcell Coetzee.

Across the four provinces, 82 Irish-qualified players featured in European action last weekend. Five of the 10 players who don't currently qualify will in the next two seasons.

Next week, the union will present their new five-year strategic plan and it could be argued that improving the player pathway at the other provinces should right up there on the list of priorities. At the moment, the burden for producing talent is leaning heavily on the rich vein of the schools system in and around the capital and, while there is no sign of a slow-down, the head honchos in Lansdowne Road will know that relying on one source is a risk.

Questions need to be asked about why the supply of Limerick forwards has dried up to the extent that Dave Kilcoyne was the sole representative in Munster's 13 last weekend and why Ulster are fielding just four local forwards in a match-day squad of 13.

Connacht have improved their own supply lines and handed two Academy players debuts last weekend. They have a large contingent of players produced elsewhere, but can point to the fact that their greatest home-grown player is wearing blue.

Deep down, the rival provinces know they cannot rely on the scraps from Leinster's table - even if the eastern province's riches are such that Ireland internationals like Jordi Murphy and Carbery feel the need to leave to further their career.

The message is being sent from headquarters that the European champions must use their best players or risk losing them.

Cian Kelleher was ahead of the curve when he opted to head for Connacht in 2016, while Murphy and Carbery were the most high-profile players to take the plunge last summer and have been welcomed with open arms.

Leinster will grumble about their depth, but few who watched their European opener will have much sympathy.

The initial movement of players on Nucifora's watch does not appear to have done anything to dampen fans' enthusiasm and the players are recognising that they can benefit.

It keeps the provinces competitive and, most importantly, ensures that Joe Schmidt has viable options across the board.

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