Tuesday 20 August 2019

Leinster need to see sense with Nucifora's clear vision

Leinster native Cian Kelleher is moving to Connacht, with the blessing of David Nucifora (SPORTSFILE)
Leinster native Cian Kelleher is moving to Connacht, with the blessing of David Nucifora (SPORTSFILE)

Ruaidhri O'Connor

If Leinster don't want to lose their bright young things, they need to use them. And when you have used a running total of 56 players this season it's hard to keep the whole squad happy. The province's excellent production line is turning up more talented individuals than they can fit in a match-day 23.

So, if a highly promising full-back looks at the queue of internationals ahead of him and thinks: 'Maybe I'm better off with Connacht', then surely they can't complain.

Yet they have, with Cian Kelleher's move west drawing the ire of a provincial spokesman who complained of "broken protocols" to the Sunday Independent before the move had even been confirmed.

The complaints were rich, given they are coming from the province who have routinely picked off Connacht's best players and have already secured their leading international, Robbie Henshaw, for next season.

Yet they are unhappy that the IRFU might have encouraged the 21-year-old to move the other way despite their understanding that he would sign a development contract to remain.

Accounts vary on the precise details of who made first contact, with Pat Lam's assertion that the player's agent made the move in dispute, but ultimately Kelleher has decided that the best thing for his career is to make the move.

It is all part of the ongoing power struggle between the provinces and headquarters on Lansdowne Road and the perceived intervention of IRFU performance director David Nucifora that has stoked the fires in UCD.

While the Australian is finding resistance in some quarters, there is a growing sense of momentum behind the changes he is making.

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Kelleher is not the only promising young player making a move to better his chances of playing for Ireland.

Another former U-20s star, Sam Arnold, looked at the five international centres who blocked his way to a place in the Ulster midfield and decided that the Munster roster looked more appetising. The move made sense.

A year ago, Kelleher made his Leinster debut off the bench on the final day of last season. A week later, he was selected on the bench for Ireland's uncapped challenge against the Barbarians. He is a player Joe Schmidt rates, with the Ireland coach hailing his "special acceleration and balance", while also remarking on his high skill-level.

Jimmy Gopperth, who faced him that day, also gave him a ringing endorsement. "He has got X-factor all over," the former Leinster back said. "Every day in training he makes people look like fools the way he attacks."

Yet, despite the fact that they have had this excellent young full-back on their books, Leinster have started him just once this term, with his other five appearances coming off the bench.

Ahead of him, Leo Cullen has gone for Rob Kearney, Isa Nacewa, Zane Kirchner and Ian Madigan and, while he has had some injury issues, the fact remains that he has spent most of his season playing British and Irish Cup and Ulster Bank League rugby.

Cullen will point to the blooding of Josh van der Flier, Garry Ringrose, Ross Molony, Peter Dooley and James Tracy as a counter-point to the argument that players must leave to develop, but Leinster's squad is especially deep in certain areas like the back-three where they have two overseas players and four Irish internationals vying for three positions.

Nucifora gave a rare interview last weekend in which he conceded his frustration at the hesitancy among young players when it comes to leaving their home provinces as he tries to create depth for Schmidt by spreading contenders throughout the provinces.

The IRFU wanted Ian Madigan to go to Munster but he chose Bordeaux, in part because of his identification with Leinster. Ulster's hugely promising winger Rory Scholes is another who has left the system, opting for two-years in Edinburgh instead of a move south.

Yet for all the fears of provincial dilution, there are few in Connacht who complain about Tralee's Ultan Dillane or Naas' James Connolly as they give their all for the cause.

"The player has to want to move and that tells us a little bit about him. You want people who are driven, ambitious, hungry for opportunity and success," Nucifora told the Sunday Times.

While Leinster appear resistant to the idea, other provinces are buying in. Lam is certainly on board, while Les Kiss is fully aware of the other side of the equation from his time within the Irish set-up. Nucifora helped appoint Rassie Erasmus to Munster, so you can be sure he's aware of the structure he's expected to work within.

"In New Zealand, all of the Super Rugby teams have players from all over the country; players who want to play for the All Blacks," Lam said. "Now we have got a similar thing, a young player who wants to play for Ireland realises that he has got to get in the shop window."

It won't be part of Connacht's plan, but it's possible that, if the move works out, Kelleher could return to Leinster a better player with a bank of provincial rugby under his belt and some Ireland caps to boot. Almost two years in to his time in charge, Nucifora's vision is taking shape. It's time to get on board.

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