Failure to properly develop young talent leaves IRFU short on options
Isa Nacewa visited the Irish squad last week to catch up with some old friends from his time in Ireland. He left impressed by how confident the team were that they were about to be the first Irish side to beat the All Blacks on home soil.
That’s the job of the players and the coaches each week. They need to find a reason to believe. This Irish team is full of givers, characters who will do anything that’s asked of them in an Irish jersey. They have improved their attack significantly and have created a very strong identity and culture.
So tomorrow they will talk about it being time to ‘turn the page’ and attack the second Test, but yesterday’s defeat will have left a scar. The knife that caused it has been evident for too long to accept in a high performance sporting environment that is very well funded.
Yes we had some bad luck, with the injury to Jeremy Loughman and then Finlay Bealham succumbing to Covid, but for a tier one country to have to draft in a last-minute player, Michael Bent, who is practically retired and played his last semi pro match in November as 24th man, is pretty embarrassing.
We will hear the excuses about delayed flights and the cost of bringing 42 instead of 40, but this cake has been years in the oven. Our scrum at international and provincial level has been creaking, but it seems no one noticed. Will this Tour be our ‘Tom Court in Twickenham’ moment?
In 2012, just days after Ireland got pushed up and down the field in Twickenham during a 30-9 defeat to England, the IRFU advertised for the newly-created role of scrum coach. The post called on applicants with “a complete and thorough understanding of rugby union” to “plan, research and constantly evaluate current scrummaging practice”.
Then CEO Philip Browne said the IRFU had been looking at this for around a year and it was “to deal with a fairly obvious problem”. Those were the days when the CEO was still involved in rugby decisions at the IRFU but when they appointed David Nucifora as the High Performance Director, areas like central contracting, coaching development and succession planning came under his watch instead.
Greg Feek moved full-time into the IRFU having been shared between Ireland and Leinster for a couple of seasons in 2014 and he was tasked with coaching the national team scrum along with aiding the National Scrum Development Programme. The IRFU said at the time that Feek’s involvement in that programme would see him “working with the provincial and underage scrum coaches to identify and develop scrum talent” and focusing on “improving players’ general understanding of scrum mechanics and technique.”
I thought it was a great idea. It was a very New Zealand model and the philosophy came from the top down. Existing and potential scrum coaches were brought together for weekend clinics and the four provincial scrum coaches were all singing off the same hymn sheet. Between 2014 and 2018 our scrum was statistically one of the best in the world. Then Feek was allowed to go part-time with Ireland and also coach in Japan with the Green Rockets in 2018 and it seems that the fairly obvious problem Browne spoke of was forgotten about.
I don’t blame the current scrum coach John Fogarty. He is a disciple of Feek and has a high level of knowledge and detail, but the reality is that 90 per cent of the work in developing front rows happens before they get to international level.
Yesterday, Eddie Jones had the luxury of replacing Ellis Genge with Mako Vunipola against Australia. Our weakness at the scrum is something we can’t ignore any longer. Andrew Porter and Tadhg Furlong are being asked to play for longer than their opponents and if one gets injured we are in even deeper trouble. We are already conceding too many penalties and I wouldn’t even rank the All Blacks in the top five scrums in the world.
The beauty of central contracting is that we are supposed to be able to control the game-time of the current stars, which we do pretty well but seem to have forgotten about the importance of the future stars. Ireland under 20s won the Grand Slam this year. The outstanding player for Ireland in the 17-16 win over France was loosehead prop Jack Boyle. I had watched him play for St Michael’s in the Schools Cup and he had the type of impact that Cian Healy had for Belvedere.
He is a future Irish international if developed properly. The French loosehead that day was a 19-year-old called Matis Perchaud, who is now in Japan with the senior squad. Fabien Galthie thinks he can be an option at the Rugby World Cup next year. This is France who have depth in the front-row that we could only dream about and they pick a 19-year-old. Perchaud played 21 matches for Bayonne this season and helped them to get promoted to the Top 14 for next season.
Boyle is yet to play a professional game for Leinster. Peter Dooley moving to Connacht will move him one place up the pecking order, but it’s all a bit slow and there is not a lot of outside-the-box thinking. Are Munster’s Keynan Knox and Roman Salanoa future internationals at tighthead? It’s impossible to say as combined they have played a total of 371 minutes this season as 22- and 24-year-olds.
I remember Michael Cheika telling us that he was getting pressure from the Ireland forwards’ coach to play Devin Toner back in the day while he still had a lot to learn. Look at how that game-time helped Toner become a cornerstone in the Leinster and Ireland pack. Is this happening in the Irish professional game at the moment?
I am focusing on the front-row factory but where are the outhalves who will eventually replace Johnny Sexton. Ronan O’Gara is on record as having tried to get Jack Crowley to sign for La Rochelle for a year. If he had exposure to the Top 14 would that make one of the contenders?
Could someone in the IRFU be working at facilitating this type of move or even short-term loan deals for players of potential? I think that the Munster lock Thomas Ahern could be an international starter but the 22-year-old has only started six games for Munster in his career. We need to be better in this space.
This tour of New Zealand could get ugly, but if it changes our mind-set on how we try to develop future stars, it might just prepare us for the next and future Rugby World Cups, where squad depth is as important as your starting 15.