Sport Rugby

Saturday 24 March 2018

Tony Ward: Leinster and Pro12 suffer as player welfare pushed to ridiculous limits

Leinster coach Matt O'Connor is unhappy at being denied access to many of his top players (SPORTSFILE)
Leinster coach Matt O'Connor is unhappy at being denied access to many of his top players (SPORTSFILE)
Tony Ward

Tony Ward

So it's Joe Schmidt versus Matt O'Connor and I'm with O'Connor on this one. From the earliest Celtic League days it was the gripe of the Welsh that the Irish were using the competition a la carte - fielding the big names when it suited, and otherwise keeping them fresh for international action.

Player welfare, I guess it is called. The name of the competition has changed but the selective policy remains the same in the Pro12.

On Friday, in a massive game for Leinster at home to league leaders Glasgow, O'Connor was given permission to select four of the Ireland squad on duty in Murrayfield but denied access to nine others from his starting line-up.

Ian Madigan, Eoin Reddan, Marty Moore and Jordi Murphy were given the green light, with Cian Healy, Sean Cronin and Luke Fitzgerald on the bench - but Jamie Heaslip, Mike Ross, Rob Kearney, Jack McGrath, Devin Toner and Sean O'Brien were nowhere to be seen.

While agreeing with the player welfare principle in theory, the Leinster head coach is miffed at the way in which it is applied, and here for sure he has a point.

"There is no doubt that there are benefits in managing players and making sure that they are in very good physical and mental space to play at a higher intensity as often as they can, but that needs to be discussed in a lot more detail than it is currently," he said.


While he has clearly felt the need to be diplomatic, the frustration is obvious - and understandably so. Were I in his shoes, though, I'm not too sure I'd be quite so understated in venting my anger - especially as Schmidt - who presumably has the final call on these matters - spent three years fighting the provincial corner with Leinster.

Bear in mind Leinster stand fifth in the table, eight points behind leaders Glasgow and four behind the Ospreys in fourth place (only four qualify for the business end), with only four games to go.

And Glasgow coach Gregor Townsend had all his Scotland players available, even though they had played in the same Murrayfield Test as Leinster internationals seven days earlier.

And when you think that Leinster have to play a European Champions Cup quarter-final in the Aviva with no game-time together as a team, even O'Connor's most blinkered critics (of which there seem to be many) can see the inadequacy in the system.

The status of the Pro12 suffers too, with the perception then, rightly or wrongly, that it is a second-rate league.

There is of course the counter-argument that the player management system presents an opportunity to blood up-and-coming young players, but paying spectators expect to see full-strength teams.

With the exception of a trip to Belfast, Leinster's remaining three games are against sides out of the running for a play-off place, so given Friday's exciting draw, their Pro12 title defence is still very much alive and kicking.

Still, being dealt a full hand by the Ireland head coach would surely help.

The other problem I have with the player welfare system relates to the nub of the issue: game-time.

As a professional player training all week, the last thing I would want is to be denied match involvement because some sports scientist somewhere decides when and how often I should play.

I appreciate the attention to scientific detail , but not at the expense of playing - which is why professional rugby players do what they do when balancing training with resting all week.

For someone to call me aside and say "sorry mate but we think you've played too many minutes so we're leaving you sit in the stand tomorrow" would drive me to distraction. You train to play, and once fit and firing, you should do just that.

On Saturday in Limerick I turned back the clock when attending the Young Munster v St Mary's scrap to avoid relegation at Tom Clifford Park.

It wasn't the greatest game in terms of quality, not helped by the heavy wind, but the level of commitment on the field and vocal support off of it was second to none.

With a 10-8 lead early in the second half, backed by an exceptionally strong wind, the Dublin side should have seen the game out but tries by Kolio Hifo and Diarmuid McCarthy secured the points for the home side, and with it a place in the top division.

And if you want one to watch for the future then McCarthy - the former Castletroy College cup winning star from 2008 - is the one.

Following a brief sabbatical from the game, the son of former Young Munster wing Derek is back firing on all cylinders and has already caught the attention of Anthony Foley and Munster (with whom he is training) as well as the Ireland Sevens Development squad.

On Saturday's impressive evidence, albeit on limited opportunity, the scorer of the match-winning try is well and truly back in the mix. Watch him.

With five clubs still in the race for the fourth play off place (including Young Munster - such is the scramble between middle and bottom) were either Old Belvedere or UCD to emerge from Saturday's final round of games it would make for an all Dublin domination of the All-Ireland competition, with runaway leaders Lansdowne, Terenure and last year's winners Clontarf already through to the knock-out stages.

Irish Independent

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