Saturday 22 September 2018

Comment: IRFU must ensure Munster maximise the potential of their youth system to maintain progress

Munster head coach Johann van Graan. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Munster head coach Johann van Graan. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
David Kelly

David Kelly

On the field, Irish rugby would seem to be in the rudest of health, with a Grand Slam in the bag and the enticing prospect of a second ever European final between two Irish provinces.

Two years ago, none of the Irish sides managed to get out of their qualification pools and Ireland won just two matches in the Six Nations before finishing third.

A vivid illustration that rugby, like all sport, is cyclical.

In 2016, there were fears that Irish rugby was heading for a precipitous decline from which it might take several years to emerge.

Such sweeping statements have been ridiculed by the passage of time; similarly, there can be no copperfastened guarantees that an upsurge in 2018 fortunes will necessarily frank sustained success in the future.

All one can do is propel the best possible strategies to ensure that progress can maintain an uninterrupted path.

Leinster’s conveyor belt at academy level continues to churn out ready-made professionals – the debut of James Ryan for his country even before his province being the talismanic example. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Leinster’s conveyor belt at academy level continues to churn out ready-made professionals – the debut of James Ryan for his country even before his province being the talismanic example. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

International success is backboned primarily by its constituent provincial parts and the relationship should be mutually inclusive. The worry for the sport in the long-term is that the burden beneath the Irish side is too lopsided, with Leinster continuing to do much of the heavy lifting.

The future health of both Leinster and Ireland looks bright but can the same necessarily be said of Munster, for all their sustained competitiveness on two fronts this season?

Leinster's conveyor belt at academy level continues to churn out ready-made professionals - the debut of James Ryan for his country even before his province being the talismanic example - but this system cannot be replicated in Munster.

The numbers game renders it impossible to do so and hence Munster, guided by the IRFU, need to develop a more streamlined system to run alongside the current academy system.

If quantity is an issue, so is quality and the two issues are inextricably linked; it is far easier for Leinster to separate the wheat from the chaff precisely because there is a far more substantial number to choose from.

As it stands, their academy is simply world-class; buttressed by a conglomerate of schools which are effectively acting as sub-academies themselves.

Munster do not have this luxury and, as we have already witnessed this season, they have been forced to plunder familiar South African territory to bump up their academy numbers.

Earlier this century, the predominant catalyst for Munster's success derived from the intensity of the club game, and their province's dominance in this arena, which by extension meant that Leinster did not derive as much benefit from this stream.

However, the club game has been nationally subsumed by the development of the academy systems which has naturally suited Leinster more than Munster.

Munster, no more than the other two provinces, have attempted to copy Leinster's system but it is simply impossible for them to do so.

They need to be innovative and find another way to complement the academy system already in place, especially when there is a scarcity of extraordinary talent coming through at one time, compared to a generation ago.

Recruitment from overseas may be one option which, if it is, emphasises that the young talent is simply not available in the province.

The question Munster need to ask themselves, as well as the IRFU, is whether they are maximising their potential in terms of talent identification.

The dearth in playing numbers may be a reality but it should not be an excuse.

And neither should the disparity between the acceleration of young talent streaming out of Leinster schools compared to those in Munster.

The choice of sports is much more of an issue in Munster than it is at the elite schools in Leinster, for example.

And, while many of the academy players in Leinster might now rarely even darken the door of a rugby clubhouse, let alone use a dressing-room there, the links to the club game down south remain culturally strong.

Rather than casting aside the value of clubs as agents of development, the IRFU and Munster should ensure they remain a vital extension of the player pathway.

The schools system may be the obvious route but it is not the only one and, just because Leinster prioritise schools over clubs for teenage talent identification, it does not mean Munster must slavishly follow that model. Munster have been very successful in trawling the province for talent in the past and the present, from Castle Island to Waterpark, and Nenagh to West Cork.

Alongside the schools system, which, from Castletroy to this year's historic Glenstal Abbey success, has imperceptibly widened the net, the IRFU, Munster and Johann van Graan must continue to cast their net wider.

Instead of the suggestion that Joey Carbery should join them on loan, Munster need to get to a position whereby they are not so reliant on the help of outsiders.

It is a long-term project because Irish rugby needs not just a strong Leinster but a strong Munster, too.

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