The IRFU needs a partnership abroad as a route to international team
If you’re at a loose end from June 24 to July 14 and have a few bob to spare you could do worse than head down to Cape Town. True, by that stage the weather will have turned so you won’t be surfing in your speedos at Camps Bay, and it might be hard to see Table Mountain for the dark clouds rolling in. But there will be compensation: a return, post-Covid, for the Under 20 World Cup.
This tournament for Ireland has sometimes felt like watching a fly on the wall documentary from A&E. We associate the summer get together with a crazily congested schedule for squads restricted in size due to penny pinching. Over the years this has seen our skinny guys frequently getting knocked about by genetically gifted peers from the likes of England, France, South Africa, New Zealand and Australia.
That trend began to shift a few years ago with the acceleration in the oven-ready nature of players coming out of the private school system here. It would have been interesting then to see how our 20s fared at World Cups over the last three seasons, but by then the tournament had already been nobbled by Covid.
As we head to the last fence in this year’s Six Nations Championship race Ireland have won 20 of their last 22 games going back to 2019, with two Grand Slams nailed in that period and a third on the line against England this evening in Musgrave Park. That was unthinkable a decade ago when watching World Cup instalments reminded you of our GAA lads on tour in Australia in what was ironically branded compromise rules.
This current high-end productivity has a direct effect on the senior ranks. For example in 2019 the 20s World Cup was in Argentina, and of the 22 players who got pitch time against England in the pool game — it was the second time they beat them that season — 14 have played competitive senior rugby for the provinces. Two — Craig Casey and Ryan Baird — are Test players who have featured in this year’s Six Nations campaign, while a third — Ben Healy —made his debut for Scotland against Italy yesterday.
We are now at a crossroads. Do we introduce a draft system with Connacht getting the cream of the crop? Should we complement that by dusting off David Nucifora’s plan of five years ago to revitalise the premier division of the AIL by bringing it closer to the professional game? Those clubs not near the top, incidentally, knocked that on the head. Since then the IRFU Performance Director emits sounds of a man with deep intestinal issues at the mention of the word ‘clubs.’
The draft system is not entirely new to the IRFU. It was tried discreetly well before Nucifora’s arrival but never got off the ground, most likely because there wasn’t any appetite for putting noses out of joint.
Maybe it’s time to look further afield. The same Nucifora was keen at his last media briefing to point out that we need to think bigger about who we get into bed with, and not just fall into the sack with the usual suspects.
If you wanted to kill two birds with one stone then you would look at the prospect of access to the URC, or its equivalent, via another team. If Ealing Trailfinders are cosying up to the Ospreys then could the IRFU not plant a bunch of seeds in one of the other clubs, opening the door to the benefits of competing against South African teams in the URC and Europe? Or be start-up partners in a new outfit?
The Ealing move — as yet inconclusive — is an interesting example of a club wanting to abandon their own backyard in favour of seemingly greener grass on the other side of the fence. From this distance it looks fraught, but maybe they’re happy to burn that bridge.
So what about London Irish as a closer partner? The club used to have a rep on the IRFU committee and they had a unique place in its annual report. Now they have been subsumed under the Exiles banner. It’s understood there is no close relationship between the club and Nucifora. If you were in his place you might look at the arrival in season 2024/25 of a regulation in the Premiership that 15 of every match-day squad must be England qualified. So why bother?
Every rugby union needs to protect its national team, so God forbid you can’t be overrun by hordes of unqualifieds. Which is not to say you can’t add something different that brings value on and off the field. The South Africans, for example, would bite your hand off if you offered them the chance of a London-based side to compete in whatever league would accommodate them. If that was to be a code share with Ireland, supplemented by players from around the world, you would tune in to watch.
If the money was right, you think the RFU or URC might be prepared to listen to the pitch? Covid has been a game-changer for us all. As one IRFU head put it to us last week: “The old rules of engagement no longer apply — the rugby market is changing all the time and we have to be alive to that.” In which case a cross-border entity, with a rump of Irish players, would have more than novel appeal.
For the IRFU it could be the perfect release valve. For example, take four under 20s from the back row alone over this season and last: Reuben Crothers and James Culhane from the class of ’22; Ruadhán Quinn and Brian Gleeson from the current crew.
Crothers might have overdone his playing time last year, continuing into the summer series that filled the hole of the World Cup, having been a star of the Six Nations. Fatigue and injury have followed him since then. As he makes his way back in the Ulster academy he’ll see the queue around the block. Crothers is too good not to get a chance though.
Culhane got a run with Emerging Ireland in South Africa six months ago before he made his senior Leinster debut, which was off the bench against Cardiff after Christmas.
From this year’s pair, Quinn has three Munster senior appearances to his name while Gleeson has trained with the senior squad, and will surely be added to their academy. How many others would be interested in nailing down this outstanding number eight?
The happy reality is that Gleeson is in a star-studded cast. That luxury turns into something else however when these players don’t get the room to grow. The pitch is where that’s done. Before Richie Murphy picks his squad for Cape Town in the summer, you’d hope the IRFU can announce a brave new departure that opens the door to competition offshore without losing touch with home.