Sunday 17 November 2019

We're not happy with where we're at, insists Nucifora

Leinster dominate the current landscape but the IRFU want more from all four of their professional teams

Niamh Briggs. Photo: Sportsfile
Niamh Briggs. Photo: Sportsfile

Rúaidhrí O'Connor

Right now, it is hard to escape the notion that the Leinster system is propping up Irish rugby.

The game appears to be in rude health, but it is the eastern province that is driving the success through its relentless production line of talent.

Johnny Sexton: ‘You picture yourself having loads of time to get ready for it (the World Cup) but we probably don’t have that much time’. Photo: Sportsfile
Johnny Sexton: ‘You picture yourself having loads of time to get ready for it (the World Cup) but we probably don’t have that much time’. Photo: Sportsfile

The IRFU launched their five-year strategic plan this morning and outlined their headline goals as part of the process.

While the national team are expected to win two Six Nations championships and reach the semi-final of the next two World Cups, the goals for the four provinces boils down to any of them winning two of the five Heineken Champions Cups and Guinness PRO14 titles between now and 2023.

Burden

On current form, it looks like Leinster will carry the burden.

In the past 10 seasons, they have delivered four European titles, three Celtic Leagues and a Challenge Cup.

Between them, the other three provinces have achieved two Celtic Leagues - Munster's in 2011 and Connacht's in 2016.

They lost at the weekend, but when he names his Ireland squad tomorrow, Joe Schmidt is expected to include up to 20 Leinster players.

That role of bulk supplier is replicated down the age-groups.

Leinster's reserves won the second-tier Celtic Cup on Saturday, while at club level Dublin clubs have won seven of the last eight All Ireland Leagues.

The academy at Leinster is running over to such an extent that players are heading to the other provinces in search of game-time.

As well as the 18 home-grown players in their own match-day squad against Toulouse on Sunday, 14 players originally from Leinster lined out for the other three provinces over the weekend.

According to the IRFU, this is an example of the system working.

Chief executive Philip Browne and performance director David Nucifora were asked if there are concerns about the imbalance at the launch of their five-year strategic plan.

"If they're the best players available that are out there, then absolutely," Nucifora said when asked if he was happy with the movement of Leinster players to the other provinces.

"That's what it's about. It's about having the best players playing the game, and I think you take your hat off to the young players that have decided to make those moves because they are ambitious.

"If you are going to be a high-performing athlete then you have to be ambitious.

"You have to take chances, you have to put yourself out on a limb and that's what they're doing because they want to be the best, they want to be the best they can be, and that's what they're doing, they're choosing to chase their dream by doing that."

Under the Irish model, the revenue from the international team funds the provincial game but Nucifora does not have concerns about the return the IRFU are getting on their investment in the three other provinces.

"If you go and ask the other provinces, they're going to tell you what their ambition is, and it will be to win," he said.

"They believe that they can do it and they've got plans to get there to do it. So, they don't go out there to come second. They want to win.

Ambitious

"We want all of our provinces to be ambitious. In 2015, Leinster weren't in great shape for a while but that was turned around.

"We wouldn't have thought in 2015 that Leinster would be doing what they are doing today, so there's no reason why the other provinces can't achieve that.

"Go back to Connacht with their PRO14 win, who would have thought? It's possible.

"I think we've just got to continue to be ambitious and think big, and that's what we've got to do. We've got to dream that all these things are achievable regardless, and we've got to find ways of making things happen, and anything is possible if people are aligned and thinking together."

Browne acknowledged that Leinster's rivals have their own challenges, but he pointed to the eastern province's demographic advantages as the key reason for their success.

"What we do have to realise is that 50pc of the rugby population and about 50pc of the entire population is based in Leinster, so it's no surprise that Leinster are in the position they are in," he said. "They also have this unique advantage of an incredibly vibrant schools scene - so they are almost unique worldwide in terms of the advantages they have.

"There is work that needs to be done in Ulster in terms of player development. Here is a whole action plan behind that which the high performance team will be in there supporting in Ulster and equally with Munster.

"And there is great work going on in Connacht but the reality is Leinster is a unique environment. Can we recreate that environment in Ulster and Munster? I don't think we can because it's different.

"There are elements of similarity in the schools system in Ulster and it's how we try and bring that on. Munster is difficult in that there are not as many schools, it's much more club-based so each province is slightly different.

"So if you're asking me are we getting the most out of all four provinces, the answer is probably not. I include Leinster in that, we can be better across all four provinces.'"

Nucifora echoed Browne's comments about the population advantages, but stressed that the other provinces need to grow the talent pool in the other provinces to help them compete.

As well as signing players from Leinster, the other provinces have been recruiting Irish-qualified players from abroad to supplement their home-grown talent as well as foreign players who could eventually qualify to play for Ireland on residency grounds.

The latter flow has slowed since World Rugby extended the qualifying period from three to five years for players signed from 2018 on.

Leinster's James Lowe, Connacht's Jarrad Butler and Munster's Chris Cloete are among the last batch of players likely to make the transition.

Before the deadline, Munster recruited South African teenagers Keynan Knox and Matt More directly from school.

Both are now playing for their 'A' side and look set to represent the senior team and potentially Ireland in the years to come.

Targeting players that young is a controversial strategy and suggests that local supply lines are struggling, but Nucifora - who signs off on every Irish contract - sees nothing wrong with it.

"I don't think that it does suggest that it's failing," he said when it was put to him that the recruitment of the pair was an indication that Munster's system is failing.

"I suggest that it means there was an opportunity for two young boys who wanted to come to Ireland who are good rugby players and we've housed them in a system that will allow them to be the best that they can be.

"Now, regardless of that, there is a lot of good talent that is floating around in all the provinces.

"I think that we have still only scratched the surface of how good Irish rugby can be.

"We're not satisfied with where we're at, at the moment, either nationally or provincially.

"We've got to continually find ways to get better. We're pumping so much time, effort and finance into the development of the game in this country to make sure that young players have the opportunity to be the best that they can be.

So there's a lot more players out there that I think can come through our system."

The union believe their five-year strategy can help them to do that, but the reliance on one province to pick up the slack brings plenty of risk.

Irish Independent

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