Monday 22 July 2019

Matt O'Connor steps up calls for IRFU to overhaul player management programme

Rob Kearney will start only his seventh Pro12 game of the season in Belfast
Rob Kearney will start only his seventh Pro12 game of the season in Belfast

While the World Cup overshadows everything in Irish rugby, the fate of the national team's biggest supply line remains a source of growing concern.

Regardless of whether supporters decry the coaching staff, poor recruitment from Leinster top brass or the inability of Academy players to progress their claims quickly enough, the facts of their league decline are obvious.

And, should Leinster fall to defeat in Ulster this weekend, those facts could imperil any romantic notions of a sustained European campaign next term, as the Blues could fail to emerge as one of the top two seeds in their qualifying group.

The knock-on effects for the national team could become perilous, let alone the damage that could be sustained by the province themselves, whose huge population base demands prolonged European involvement.

Leinster wheeled out their big guns yesterday, Sean O'Brien, Matt O'Connor and Rob Kearney, reflecting the growing anxiety at the stringent policies of the IRFU which have cost them vast swathes of their 20-plus international contingent for much of the campaign.

Kearney is chairman of IRUPA, the players' body, and as such will be keenly interested in the background talks currently ongoing between his employers, the IRFU, and the club he represents, Leinster.


Something, it seems, has to give. And, given the fact that the returning Johnny Sexton, chairman of the global players' body, has always indicated his frustration at not being allowed to play more games for his club, the debate could get heated.

"It's difficult for us too when you're fit and on the line, watching a game when you're not playing," said Kearney, who will start only his seventh Pro12 game of the season in Belfast on Friday.

"There's a programme put in place, players have to buy into it whether it's right or wrong and if ultimately it's helping the national team, well then there is some sort of good coming out of it.

"That's a debate that's going on quite heavily at the moment, so I suppose as players we just leave it up to the powers that be."

Given that meritocracy is now in place, Leinster's league placing now directly affects their European status, unlike in the past when league placings were wholly irrelevant.

It seems the IRFU have cottoned on to this fact, as well as declining attendances at Pro12 games given the regular absences of so many leading stars.

"I think there are a few changes that can be made," Kearney added in that context, "but as far as I'm aware the IRFU aren't overly happy with how it is at the moment too."

So if Leinster aren't happy and the IRFU aren't happy, you'd like to think there will be some amendments made."

Whether David Nucifora and Joe Schmidt agree is another matter.

O'Connor has had enough difficulties to deal with all season on the training ground; this one will take place at boardroom level, but his views are well-documented.

"Yeah, I've been very honest in how I've approached those conversations," he reiterated. "I mean, we've had access to our best blokes for 30pc of the season. And unfortunately the League table reflects that.

"When we have our best blokes we're as good as anyone in Europe. And I think we showed that on Sunday."

O'Brien was injured for half the season and arguably could have benefited from a more sustained run of games upon his belated return in late January; that didn't happen and it may now be too late, unless Leinster can win on Friday and then hope for slip-ups elsewhere.


"It is a difficult one this year," he said. "The Union are in a difficult situation with the World Cup around the corner.

"They have that in their minds and if you add up all the games that Rob and Jamie and other lads who have played a lot of minutes will play in terms of international games this year, it is an awful lot.

"The Union are trying to mind that as best they can. I have always said that I would love to play three or four games in a row and then be given a weekend off so you can get a bit of consistency and be match fit, rather than week on and week off.

"There will be no more weeks off now anyway."

There will be time off for both Fergus McFadden and Kane Douglas though; McFadden was already ruled out for the remainder of the season with a broken thumb after Sunday's Champions Cup semi-final defeat to Toulon, while Douglas is set for surgery on a back disc problem.

Shane Jennings may also have to sweat on the possibility of a swansong appearance in blue as the retiring flanker continues to undergo return to play protocols due to concussion, having displayed symptoms last week.

Props Cian Healy and Martin Moore are also doubts for Friday's must-win match for the fifth-placed Pro12 outfit as they await scans on shoulder problems.

"We're waiting on a couple of scans on the pair's shoulders, but we'll know a little bit more when those scans come in," confirmed O'Connor.

"They're just very sore, there was a collapsed scrum that impacted on Marty and when Bakkies Botha dived full-length on Cian's shoulder, that probably wasn't fantastic for it."

O'Connor added that he expects Ian Madigan to bounce back from his disappointing intercepted pass on the weekend.

"He's disappointed obviously but there are a lot of things we did right and a lot of things we did wrong in the game," he said. "It wasn't that moment. That was one of five or six or seven moments that perhaps cost us the game.

"Thankfully he's pretty resilient mentally. He understands the dynamic in relation to kicking goals. The responsibility that comes with kicking goals and playing 10 and 12 are massive anyway.

"He's got to be better moving forward. He's got to get back on the horse and be as good as he can as quick as he can.

"It's going to be a pretty physical battle on Friday night so the freshness will be pretty important. Mentally is the real challenge because even with extra-time, it was a stop-start match and fairly alright physically for us.

"For us, it's making sure we take the positives out of the good bits that were on display on Sunday and try make sure we are a little bit better in those key moments that probably cost us the result.

"We have got to go up there and win. We got to back ourselves to pick the best 15, the best 23 to do that.

"The responsibility is on those professionals, who have been in and around the game for a long time, to make sure they do what's required to get themselves up for a performance on Friday."

Leinster will front-load their line-up, as expected, while Ulster will also have all their available first-choice players too, albeit hamstring worry Darren Cave may miss out, with Stuart McCloskey favourite to step in ahead of Luke Marshall.

Irish Independent

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