Sunday 15 September 2019

Grand Slam champions, Leinster's double delight and a deep pool of talent that can keep good times rolling

Leinster players, from left, Tadhg Furlong, Jack McGrath, Cian Healy and Andrew Porter following their victory in the Guinness PRO14 Final between Leinster and Scarlets at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin
Leinster players, from left, Tadhg Furlong, Jack McGrath, Cian Healy and Andrew Porter following their victory in the Guinness PRO14 Final between Leinster and Scarlets at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin
An injured Isa Nacewa leaves the pitch during the Guinness PRO14 final. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

It might have felt like the end of the season at the Aviva yesterday, but not quite. For Leinster to complete a unique double of Champions Cup and PRO14 titles was the near word-perfect statement about where they are in the rugby world. And for Munster to have joined them in the last four of both competitions spreads the net of competence a bit wider.

With 23 players from both provinces involved in the tour to Australia next month it is not over yet. A lot done; more to do.

For the moment though, it is already clearly in credit: Ireland are Grand Slam champions and Leinster are double winners, and for a country of this size that is a stellar return. Munster's pain at playing second fiddle to Leinster may be acute, but they have coped well with a shift in coach mid-stream, on top of injuries to key personnel, to come desperately close to having made yesterday's final.

You will probably find it a bit tedious to be told how big games frequently are decided by small details, so brace yourself for some more. The endgame in the RDS last week, when Leinster's success by a single point was translated quickly into a gulf between them and their opponents, fits the profile.

Consider the game's final play. Three weeks ago in the Sportsground Max Deegan was dealing with the ignominy of being part of a Leinster side who had their backsides handed to them on a plate by Connacht. Next thing he was coming off the bench against Munster, very late in the day, immediately completing a big tackle, and then making an even bigger steal to see Leinster safe.

On another day a different referee to Stuart Berry - or indeed on another day Berry himself - would have looked at Deegan's role in the poach on Dave Kilcoyne and seen a tackle assist that didn't involve a clear release: penalty Munster.

On another day it's certain that Ciaran Parker, for whom playing with Shannon in Division 1B of the AIL was the bulk of his season, would choose to empty Deegan rather than roll him out: possession Munster. And on another day the world-class Conor Murray would have dropped his right shoulder into Deegan's exposed ribcage instead of looking to the referee for a penalty that wasn't coming: possession Munster.

None of this makes Munster a bad team, and had Berry seen things differently then Ian Keatley could have stepped forward and maybe hit the winning kick. Given the default setting of some of the Brave and the Faithful to give Keatley a kicking when results go south, that would have made for an interesting soundtrack.

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Munster labour under a heavier weight than Leinster on a few fronts. It used to drive Rassie Erasmus mad, for example, that Leinster's far greater number of centrally-contracted players - for whom the IRFU pick up the tab - increased a financial advantage they already enjoy thanks to their location in the capital.

That is beyond Munster's control. Something they can readily shape, however, is the way they play the game. It is inescapable that the farther you go in any competition the more creative you have to be. Munster already have a very good set-piece, and players capable of executing detailed power plays, but their coaches are asking them to deal with sophisticated security locks by hitting them with a stick. And that is fixable.

Of greater concern nationally is the gap that has opened up on the other two provinces. Connacht's PRO12 win in 2016 feels like it never happened. It remains one of the truly great achievements in any league since the game went professional. Connacht's previous five finishes read: 7th, 10th, 8th, 8th, 9th. Then second in the table - their first ever play-off - followed by victory in the final. No one in their right mind expected back-to-back success, but since then the walk has been so far removed from the talk as to be a stagger.

Much of that chat has been about a stadium. Pat Lam got it on the airwaves, and Connacht chief executive Willie Ruane tuned in to the same frequency. Last August Ruane conceded he was frustrated at the lack of progress beyond identifying three potential sites, including the Sportsground, with three possible designs. Seemingly that is now down to two, one of which is their current home.

There are a lot of moving parts in this machine, and dictating the pace at which they move is not entirely in Connacht's control. But they should have thought about that two years ago before they lit the fuse in public. As it turns out, they are in the same boat as the RDS in that they will be applying for a dig out from Government - via the Large Scale Sport Infrastructure Fund - to see if a 12,000-15,000 capacity stadium can work in Galway.

There won't be news on that until the Budget in November so the new coach won't be arriving to the sound of Champagne corks popping in the Sportsground. Last week Connacht confirmed that name as Andy Friend. If you wondered why there was such a gap between the story of Kieran Keane's demise breaking in this parish and its public confirmation by Connacht then it tells you how fraught the break-up was. Mercifully, Ruane, in his welcome of the new man, didn't try and tell us how Friend was 'the perfect fit' for the Sportsground.

Meantime in Ulster, more change is coming. If Ruane has looked out of his depth in the shallow end in Galway then Shane Logan never leaves for work without his armbands, opening his tenure with promises of world dominance and instead just about winning the bronze medal in a four-horse race. In Ireland.

In short order Ulster need a new chief executive, they are waiting - with the meter running - on their new head coach, and a new head of strength and conditioning: three hugely influential roles in any rugby organisation. It was reported in South Africa yesterday that their favourite son, Ruan Pienaar, will also be part of the coaching set-up in Ravenhill. Winning against the Ospreys last weekend means their fixture list, and season ticket sales, will look better than would have been the case with relegation to the Challenge Cup. So they will have to get it right from top to bottom in their set-up. And in this country, our current standing is predicated on getting the initial steps right: producing kids who can play.

The pathway, as laid down by the IRFU High Performance Unit, has as its funnel the provincial academies. If you take the last round of derby games in the Guinness PRO14 this season you can see the huge reliance on this conduit.

When Munster beat Ulster 15 of their matchday 23 came through their academy system. Included in the eight 'imports' are Sammy Arnold, who spent time in Ulster's academy having arrived over as an IQ (Ireland Qualified) player, from England, and Conor Oliver, who played schools and youth rugby in Leinster but wasn't part of their academy. For Ulster the number coming through their own ranks - again, like Angus Curtis, they might not have started there - was 17/23, with Leinster and Connacht returning 20 and 17 respectively from their game.

Clearly this is as far removed from the football model across the water as you can get. In a game where the closest thing to a transfer system is paying another club to release a player or coach who wants to move early it's all about getting an academy place. In Ireland if that doesn't work out first time then a sub-academy place might be on offer. This is a limbo land where the player effectively lives the disciplined life of an academy member but, as the name suggests, is on standby hoping for a flight cancellation. It's a precarious existence.

The AIL still offers a route into the pro game, and while this might broaden if the IRFU can come up with a feasible plan for that competition - a process that is ongoing - there is enormous hunger among Irish teenagers to get hitched to a province as they leave the school gates.

So there is a gap in the market, and former Springbok Dan van Zyl is the first to plug one corner of it. Van Zyl has vast experience of the Irish coaching world, and after 11 years in the Leinster age grade system is opening his own academy. Based in Killashee Hotel in Co Kildare, Rugby Academy Ireland will offer full-time and part-time courses, kicking off in September.

"There are a lot of players who may develop a bit later, or just fell through the cracks, and we're offering them a chance to realise their potential with us," he says. "It's about identifying their individual needs and working together to satisfy them. There is a lot of talent out there."

As another option for those who don't make the initial cut with a provincial academy/sub-academy, this is welcome. And there will be others. Even though Ireland is an international minnow in the numbers game, relying solely on the four provinces to look after our talent identification and development is daft. It's about keeping as many doors open as long as possible. And currently it's working pretty well.

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