Sunday 16 December 2018

Alan Quinlan: People may not like Munster's recruitment strategy but it's vital if they want to keep up with Leinster

Clever recruitment is vital to keep pace with juggernaut Leinster academy has become

Munster’s Dublin import Andrew Conway scores the province’s winning try during their European Rugby Champions Cup quarter-final match against RC Toulon at Thomond Park in Limerick. Photo: Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile
Munster’s Dublin import Andrew Conway scores the province’s winning try during their European Rugby Champions Cup quarter-final match against RC Toulon at Thomond Park in Limerick. Photo: Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile

Alan Quinlan

It was fitting that Andrew Conway played the starring role at Thomond Park last weekend.

The Dubliner represents a relevantly recent evolution at Munster, and an acceptance that, for the time being at least, the province have to not only make the most of their own resources, but be shrewd in their recruitment to prevent mass-producing Leinster from getting out of sight.

When Conway turns to the crowd and beats his chest after touching down, he is connecting with an organ that once pumped blue blood, but he is the perfect example of how player and province can benefit hugely from a commitment to reinvention.

As Conway picked himself up off the ground in the Toulon in-goal area, he immediately found himself enveloped in a bear hug by Billy Holland, a man as Munster as the three crowns on the crest. Conway then turned to salute the crowd - the people who have gratefully adopted him as one of their own.

At 18 years old Conway was talked about as one of the hottest properties to come out of the Leinster schools game since the sport turned professional.

Eight years later, he is sauntering across the Limerick turf with a swagger befitting the Munster hero he has become, and he is clearly aware how highly he is thought of in these surroundings, more than 200km from home.

Some traditionalists initially bemoaned the fact that Munster were signing players who had failed to make an impact at other provinces, but the recruitment policies have been vindicated by reaching back-to-back Champions Cup semi-finals, a remarkable achievement for this group of players and something that would not be possible without the talented imports wearing red.

Munster can only admire Leinster's riches from afar and try to learn from the success they are having in Dublin 4.

They cannot match their rivals stride for stride with home-grown talent. And that means they have to think outside the box.

Take the schools game, for example. There are nine 'A' schools in Munster and more than double that in Leinster, where there are also deeper pockets to provide the training facilities, infrastructure and professional coaching set-ups in schools that are helping so many teenagers graduate to provincial level without much fuss.

The Ireland U20 squads have also been valuable in helping teenage talent adapt to the demands of a professional set-up, and of the 39 players in Noel McNamara's 2018 Six Nations squad, 18 were from Leinster, 11 from Ulster, nine from Munster and one from Connacht.

There is nothing unusual about those numbers, as over the last four seasons for the U-20s the average make-up of an Irish starting XV reads: eight from Leinster, three from Munster, three from Ulster, and one from Connacht.

If you go back even further, to Ireland's Grand Slam-winning U-20 side of 2007, Leinster had nine players in the starting XV in the final game against Italy, Ulster had three, Connacht had two and Munster just one - Keith Earls, although Ian Keatley and Felix Jones ended up playing alongside him in Thomond Park.

Last Saturday, 10 of Munster's match-day 23 were from outside the province, and while that may seem far removed from my early playing days in Red - when we would often have six or seven players from my Shannon side in the pack alone - it is a necessary balancing act at the moment for Munster to remain competitive as there is not enough home-grown talent coming through to feed a team with ambitions of glory on several fronts.

Another concerning trend is Munster's growing reliance on players from Cork: nine of last Saturday's 23 hail from the Rebel County, with just two from Limerick (Conor Murray and Dave Kilcoyne), one from Waterford (Jack O'Donoghue) and one from Kerry (JJ Hanrahan).

However, there are plenty of positives at grassroots in the province too; there is great work being done, and the ultra-modern centre of excellence, an incredible facility that is the envy of clubs across Europe, will certainly strengthen Munster's hand over the coming years, as well as an exciting crop at U-19 level who have a considerable presence on the national team.

It must be said too that an academy that has produced world-class players such as Murray and Peter O'Mahony is clearly doing something right.

But in the short-term at least, Munster must continue to recruit cleverly if they want to remain competitive in the Champions Cup.

It is obvious how well balanced and astute the hunt for players has been in recent years.

I know Munster's methods may not be to everyone's tastes but I think there is a growing understanding that it is essential practice at the moment. Signing two South African 18-year-olds, a centre and a prop, earlier this year drew criticism but if you're not producing the players at home you have to get them from somewhere.

If you sign players at that early stage of their development it also gives them ample time to understand the culture and history of Munster, and when they eventually step up they will have a much better idea of what to expect and, crucially, what is expected.

There is plenty of concerned chat in Munster about the Leinster production line; it has probably become the hardest academy to get into in Europe, and the number of players it is turning out who are ready for provincial and international rugby is staggering.

The Grand Slam success was particularly illuminating when you consider the influential roles played by Dan Leavy (23), James Ryan (21), Garry Ringrose (23), Joey Carbery (22), Andrew Porter (22) and Jordan Larmour (20).

Stuart Lancaster has spoken about how impressed he has been with the Leinster schools system, where the investment by the big-hitting colleges in facilities such as 4G pitches and state-of-the-art gyms, and in personnel - with directors of rugby leading detailed coaching tickets - is paying off.

They have set the standard and the other provinces need to learn from their success. They may not have the same financial clout or depth in playing numbers, but there is plenty of valuable information that can be siphoned from our most populous province.

It may feel like an unfair playing field but for the time being the other provinces simply need to find ways around the imbalances, while the IRFU also have an important role to play.

The Leinster juggernaut may resemble that of Dublin's Gaelic footballers in terms of its raw power and enviable resources, but the professional nature of rugby, with such vast opportunities for recruitment, gives the other provinces more than a fighting chance.

With so many talented players going through the Leinster academy doors, and some not even making it that far, Munster, Ulster and Connacht need to ensure their scouting is on the money, because you never know when you might get your hands on the next Andrew Conway.

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