Sport Rugby

Sunday 8 December 2019

Sinead Kissane: League of Ireland potential can be realised by following rugby's lead

Talents like Joey Carbery make you excited for the future of Irish rugby. Photo: Sportsfile
Talents like Joey Carbery make you excited for the future of Irish rugby. Photo: Sportsfile
Sinead Kissane

Sinead Kissane

This month ten years ago the Irish rugby team hit its version of ground zero. The 2007 Rugby World Cup seemed like Ireland's gateway to greatness.

Before the tournament, Brendan Fanning's book 'From There to Here' was published which looked at Ireland's progress in the pro era, including the low that was Lens in 1999. It turned out the '07 RWC also had a trap-door which left the feeling of a swing from there to here, to back there again.

It's far from perfect but Irish rugby is developing a well-oiled conveyor belt. There are some positions, like the back-row, which have so many quality players that they out-perform the production line of a royal family with an incumbent, a heir and a spare.

There was Donnacha Ryan's move to Paris but the work the IRFU has done in keeping marquee players at home has been impressive. It is also hard to blame Joe Schmidt for making full use of the residency rule, although that production line will slow down with the rule increased to five years.

What has also improved is the identification of talent. The IRFU has developed the Elite Player Pathway which identifies players, not in traditional hot-houses like schools or academies, who receive coaching and whose coaches are coached.

There is also the new IQ (Irish Qualified) Rugby programme in the UK which aims to identify and encourage players with Irish roots to join the provinces and play for the national team.

There was a fear that Irish rugby would never be the same when Paul O'Connell and Brian O'Driscoll retired but I don't ever remember Schmidt publicly bemoaning their loss even during the tough days.

There are some special talents coming through, including Garry Ringrose and Joey Carbery as well as former U-20 captain James Ryan. They are players who make you excited about the future.

It was easy to feel deflated about the Republic of Ireland's future following the 1-0 loss to Serbia on Tuesday night. Where's the next batch of talent? How do the production lines of our national soccer and rugby teams compare?

Now, I get it, some folk bristle whenever anyone peers over the fence into another sport. Some think comparing the state of our two main national teams should automatically descend into an 'us against them' bun fight.

Some folk reckon the ad with the slogan 'This is Rugby Country' was the biggest piece of opportunist propaganda since 'Father Ted'.

Maybe they're right, because besides the GAA, our national soccer team will always hold a traditional status. But maybe we shouldn't get sucked into assumptions either.

TV ratings aren't everything but they do give an indication of popularity. For Ireland's Six Nations game against Wales in Cardiff on Friday, March 10 this year an average audience of 818,300 watched the game on RTÉ. Two weeks later for the Republic of Ireland's World Cup qualifier against Wales in Dublin on Friday, March 24 an average audience of 655,300 watched the game on RTÉ.

Sure, rugby is an all-island team but over the past few decades the sport has boomed, not just because of the national team but because we can see home-grown talent on any given weekend during the season in Limerick, Dublin, Galway and Belfast. Which begs the ongoing question of why the League of Ireland isn't being maximised to its full potential.

If kids don't make it in academies in England, what structures are in place to nurture their talent at home and build production lines?

"I think it's encouraging that we have a 19s, 17s, we've just kicked off an under-15 league and in a couple of years we're going to have an under-13s league," Stephen McGuinness, the general secretary of the PFAI, said.

"I think it's far better to have our own structures within our own league. The problem is that it's going to probably take maybe six, seven, eight years before we start seeing this coming to fruition."

Isn't the League of Ireland the most obvious starting point? "I think we've never had as many players in the national team that have come through the structures of the League of Ireland," McGuinness added.

"I think it needs serious investment from the FAI. You'd love to see Uefa bring in a rule that says X amount of prize-money must be pumped back into your own domestic league. You look at the Icelandic FA, they pumped nearly everything from the Euros back into their domestic league to make it better".

For so much of our past, the anatomy of Irish soccer was about players making it in England. That's obviously changed with the Premier League attracting talent from all over the world. That's not the FAI's fault but it is their problem.

The league has helped numerous players get moves to England, the FAI has emerging talent programmes for kids and scouts all over the world. But maybe the FAI should also peer over the fence to see how the IRFU is making its production lines work for the national team.

This isn't about Ireland being rugby country or soccer country. This is just about our country.

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