Thursday 17 October 2019

Pressure now on academies to produce goods

An hour after Leinster won their first Heineken Cup final in 2009, Jonny Sexton poured his heart out in the mixed zone and told us just how close he had been to packing in his career with the province.

Six months earlier, he'd had a shocker in a league game against Glasgow and was summarily replaced against Castres after an hour of their Heineken Cup pool game by a re-signed veteran out-half, Australian David Holwell.

With two other foreign imports, Felipe Contepomi and Isa Nacewa, due to return to the busy out-half position, Sexton would speak about the "depressing" nature of his position with a club to which he dearly wanted to belong.

Despite his desire to remain with Leinster, he spoke of how he contemplated leaving Ireland in order to seek opportunities. Later, he would credit Declan Kidney's intervention in selecting him for an Ireland 'A' game as a significant springboard to renewing his confidence.

History will record his immediate impact on Leinster's campaign when he was introduced early into the semi-final victory against Munster at Croke Park and his subsequent contribution to the final success against Leicester Tigers.

Since that Heineken Cup win, Sexton's contribution to province and country has been immense. But even now, he will admit that it could all so easily have taken a different course.

Sexton's case history provides just one element of the back story to the IRFU's decision yesterday to radically redraw the boundaries when it comes to the province's recruitment of non-Irish qualified (NIQ) players.

Fundamentally, the decision is backboned by money -- there is less cash in the coffers and if the IRFU are to emulate the glorious past decade of success, they must do so under tighter financial constraints than ever before.

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Hence, national contracts have already proved to be less attractive than before and there will be also be less money available for the provinces to recruit as many overseas players as in the past.

As with most controversial policies, a catch-22 system operates. While the provinces are supposed to harbour the twin aims of chasing success in the Heineken Cup as well as promoting indigenous talent, one could argue that they will be handicapped by the IRFU's new system, particularly when contrasted with the Top 14's laissez-faire approach as to how they blow their considerable budgets.

However, the IRFU will argue that since they are the paymasters -- in particular, their €2.5m funding of the provincial academies -- they will not be able to adequately fund the provinces if the national team is not successful.

Forcing this square peg into a round hole has been a thorny topic since Ireland embraced professionalism in the late 1990s. The issue has been starkly highlighted in certain areas -- particularly within the acute dearth of tight-head props.

Foreign recruitment has never been an exact science. But in these constrained times and with a desire to ensure that the international team remains competitive, the IRFU are attempting to streamline the issue.

There will undoubtedly be thorny, almost impracticable problems. If, for example, Munster and Leinster both want to sign a particular player in one position, who gains preference?

The IRFU acknowledge that there will be assessments on a case-by-case basis and this adds fuel for opponents who will cry foul at the perception of such seemingly reactive 'ad-hocery'.

Ultimately, the intention is admirable, even if it means we will never again see personalities like Contepomi or Doug Howlett become so wonderfully integrated into Irish rugby culture, as well as bestowing their vast experience upon younger Irish talent.


And if it allows greater player movement between the provinces -- whereby Munster and Leinster can horse trade a prop for a wing, for example -- all the better. Hence, potential quality players like Fionn Carr or Jamie Hagan will be fast-tracked into a higher level of rugby at an earlier stage.

And yet critics can realistically carp that just because one is Irish does not necessarily mean one is good enough; some Munster supporters could justifiably argue at the value for money invested in, say, Tony Buckley's career down the years. Should provinces be unfairly handicapped in this way? If an Irish player is palpably not good enough to fill a jersey, should a province be forced to play him? How the policy is put into practice may offer some fascinating sideline viewing.

The pressure is now on the academies to keep churning out the quality. They have not done a bad job beavering away during a decade of unprecedented Irish success and this plan gives all teams two years to prepare for seamless succession. The next 10 years will tell us if the conveyor belt can continue to whirr as smoothly.

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