Sunday 21 April 2019

Alan Quinlan: 'Jack McGrath exit is tough on Leinster but plantation must continue'

 

Ireland front-row Jack McGrath might not be in the Leinster huddle for long more as a move to Ulster beckons. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Ireland front-row Jack McGrath might not be in the Leinster huddle for long more as a move to Ulster beckons. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Alan Quinlan

Alan Quinlan

"It would be a terrible pity if the provinces lost their identity and fellas were moving  for money all the time. It gives the Irish provinces a distinct edge over all the other teams.

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"It is something that is very rare if you look at world sport anywhere because professional sport seems to transcend that kind of loyalty. I would be disappointed to see it (identity) go."

- Mick Dawson, Leinster Rugby CEO

Considering their world-leading production line and last season's sweeping of the boards, not to mention my naturally frosty disposition towards Munster's rivals, it may seem odd to some that I can't help but sympathise with Leinster as another one of their home-grown internationals looks set to leave the nest.

During my career, interprovincial switches were less common, but a number of guys - Stephen Keogh and Trevor Hogan come to mind - headed east as they felt their game-time at Munster was being limited by the logjam of international forwards at the club.

Both players joined Leinster in a year that Munster were crowned European champions, so there are similarities with the position Leo Cullen's side currently find themselves in.

The obvious difference, however, is the profile of the players that are moving elsewhere, and that's what surely is really gnawing at Leinster CEO Mick Dawson - highlighted in these pages this week.

Look at Joey Carbery, a 23-year-old out-half who has played in Irish victories against every other side in the world's top 10 bar France. His best years are ahead of him.

The same could probably be said of Jordi Murphy too, a 27-year-old back-rower whose versatility and reliability have been valuable assets for club and country.

It is hard to know if Jack McGrath will ever get back to his Lions tour form of 2017 - when he was unlucky not to be the starting No 1 ahead of Mako Vunipola - but at 29, when you consider Tony Woodcock played until he was 34, and Gethin Jenkins until he reached 37, another full Rugby World Cup cycle is a realistic goal.

The problem for Dawson and Leinster is that this is probably just the start. They will feel like victims of their own success, others essentially profiting from their overflowing supply line, but the plantation of Ulster and other provinces must continue.

While I sympathise with Leinster, international rugby is the biggest show in town and without it - and the financial resources it generates - the provinces would be able to keep even fewer players on their books.

Umbrella

For all of their might, Leinster will always remain a number of ribs - very significant ones - in the umbrella of Irish rugby, and if players want to leave Dublin 4 to enhance their international chances, and earning potential, you cannot stop them.

From a clinical point of view, McGrath moving to Ulster would make a lot of sense. The departure of a world-class loosehead would be a significant loss to Leinster, but there would be plenty of positives were he to make the move up the M1.

Eric O'Sullivan has surpassed all expectations in Belfast this season but it was only five months ago that he made his first Ulster start.

The 23-year-old may not be overly enthused by the prospect of competing with McGrath for the Ulster No 1 shirt but his development would benefit greatly from training alongside his fellow Dubliner, a prop of such experience and talent.

The suggestion is that McGrath is seeking this move, that he feels it would be good for his career. His stock has been falling sharply of late - although he is a classy operator who I'm confident can turn it around - which is a deeply worrying trend for him only six months out from Japan.

He has a year left on his central contract and probably feels at risk of losing it when the current deal is up. Ulster can probably pay him the same wages even if the IRFU are no longer picking up the tab, so the move makes sense on a number of levels.

He has had an injury-interrupted campaign but even still, I'm sure he would have expected to have started a lot more than six games by the start of March, and being left out of the Champions Cup squad for the Round 5 game against Toulouse - with Ed Byrne preferred - would have stung.

If McGrath were to switch to Ulster, you would imagine that Byrne and Peter Dooley, and the next loosehead off the academy rank, would benefit with more opportunities to play. Only one Lions loosehead, Cian Healy (below), would be blocking their path then.

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Cian Healy celebrates after the match. Photo: Phil Walter/Getty Images

The biggest winner of all from this scenario would be Irish rugby, as the four first-choice looseheads at the provinces would be Healy, McGrath, Dave Kilcoyne and Denis Buckley, with James Cronin, O'Sullivan, Byrne and Co providing plenty of competition.

Ulster have been trawling the market for a loosehead with little success, so if they can get a world-class operator domestically all the better, particularly with the IRFU already footing the bill until his central contract expires. It will strengthen the overall picture of Irish rugby even if Leinster lose out in the short term.

The interpros have already dipped in intensity due to the blurring of provincial boundaries and while that is a shame, it is an inevitable consequence of a system that is centred around our international team.

The days of having genuine international depth at the provinces are numbered. The idea of Leinster or Munster having four Ireland locks - like we did in the 2000s with Paul O'Connell, Donncha O'Callaghan, Mick O'Driscoll and Donnacha Ryan - are long gone.

The interprovincial roads will have to cater for more traffic in coming seasons. Look at the Munster hooker scenario, for example, when Rhys Marshall becomes Irish-qualified this November - you may well have another transfer scenario developing with Rory Best retired from international duty and Niall Scannell also based in Limerick.

While Leinster, due to their vast playing riches, will probably suffer most in these times of natural redistribution, having our best players playing regularly, and in this country, is the priority. And rightly so.

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