primary focus

Balance between Ireland and the provinces is an important battle for IRFU

Should national team success come at a cost for the provinces?

WHAT IS THE most important thing in Irish rugby?

For many, the answer is obvious. The success of the national team is the beating heart that nourishes the entire sport on this island. Others might tell you that they’d take a trophy for their province over any glory for Ireland on the international scene.

Ireland players dejected after Argentina's third try Ireland's World Cup campaign didn't go according to plan, but they remain the primary focus in this country. Dan Sheridan / INPHO Dan Sheridan / INPHO / INPHO

Right now it’s quite clear that David Nucifora and Joe Schmidt, the two most influential figures in Irish rugby by some distance, believe that streamlining as much as they can towards a successful Team Ireland is crucial.

That’s simplifying a complex issue of course, but all the latest goings-on point to such a conclusion. Munster, Connacht, Ulster and Leinster would agree that they partly exist to serve the national team, but they must have some worry for their own futures.

The four provinces have been feeders to the national team as long as they’ve existed as true professional organisations, but the sense is that the degree of independence they had during former glories is gradually being reduced.

In New Zealand, the franchises are in place purely to serve their national team. The same roughly applies in Australia and South Africa. On the other hand, we have the mess of French rugby, where the clubs mean almost everything and les Bleus are in a sad state.

It’s clear which model bears more positive results on the international stage.

The complication is that Ireland is not exactly like the aforementioned nations. Munster, Ulster and Leinster, particularly, have provided some of the most memorable moments in Irish rugby history.

Their Heineken Cup victories remain easily the fondest times in many a supporter’s involvement with the oval ball game.

The concern for some in Irish rugby circles is that the provinces are being diluted, and that the onset of wealth in the French and English clubs mean that Leinster, Connacht, Ulster and Munster will struggle to compete for European titles.

Munster players celebrate Foley captained Munster to the 2006 Heineken Cup. Billy Stickland / INPHO Billy Stickland / INPHO / INPHO

Munster coach Anthony Foley, who first played for the province in 1995, recalls a time when the provinces were floating along meaninglessly, struggling to be consistently competitive and failing to capture the public’s imagination.

He feels that heading back in such a direction would be dangerous, and says he understands why some rugby supporters feel a closer bond to their province than the national team.

“That’s probably because they know the player, they may have gone to school with them or they know the parents so they have a connection,” says Foley. “Or they love the jersey, they love the badge and they want to go to Thomond or Musgrave and support the team. You can’t have one without the other.

“I was involved when the provinces weren’t going that well. We had inter-pros but no Celtic League or anything like that and it was hard to generate momentum into the national side.

“And the national side were more or less picking from the English Premiership at the time, back with Murray Kidd and Brian Ashton, and they found it hard to be in control of the players and achieve any momentum. You don’t want to go back to all that.

“What you want is your provinces being the driving forces in the Pro12, getting out of the groups in Europe and making sure you have viable, vibrant underlying teams for the national team to pick from. Because you literally cannot have one without the other.”

Clearly the IRFU are strongly desirous of ensuring that the provinces remain highly competitive in the Pro12 and Europe, ensuring a confidence within Irish rugby and a steady supply of players who can bring a winning mentality into the national side.

However, they are also keen to ensure that as many homegrown players as possible are getting game time with the provinces. Such thinking went into the blocking of Stephen Moore’s proposed move to Munster, an intervention that left some of the province’s fans angry.

AustraliaÕs Stephen Moore Could Moore have aided Munster's cause in Europe? Billy Stickland / INPHO Billy Stickland / INPHO / INPHO

While Foley has not been critical of the IRFU in this regard, he does say the value of any similarly experienced foreign imports could be vital if provinces are to compete for European success in the future.

“You learn from your peers, don’t you? You learn from fellas,” says Foley. “You see good habits, you understand that. You understand what it takes to play international rugby. I think Munster were lucky for the last number of years to have the stalwarts they had around the team, the O’Callaghans, the O’Connells.

“Obviously Felix (Jones) retiring this year, it is taking people who have built their way up and shown good habits to younger players. You need to fill that void with experienced, overseas players at times. Not all the time but some of the time.

“That is where the (Mark) Chisholms of this world come into it, the Jimmy Williams, the Langfords. They bring in a different viewpoint, a different way of doing the same thing.”

It should be underlined that the IRFU have in place an allowance for four NIQ (non-Irish qualified) players at each province, as well as one project player. Without Moore arriving, the likes of Mike Sherry, Duncan Casey, Niall Scannell and Kevin O’Byrne will play more games for their home province.

Nonetheless, it will be interesting to note the calibre of future foreign imports.

Soon after arriving in Ireland, IRFU performance director Nucifora expressed an openness to the idea of having Irish players move between provinces more often than has been the case in the past.

Again, this seems an entirely sensible notion and switches like John Cooney’s from Leinster to Connacht – in which Nucifora played an integral part – have been successful so far.

Ian Madigan It's debatable whether Ian Madigan would favour a move to Munster. Ryan Byrne / INPHO Ryan Byrne / INPHO / INPHO

When it comes to international players, it remains to be seen whether or not the thought can become a reality. From a rugby point of view, the transfer of Ian Madigan from Leinster to Munster would make sense, but that discussion doesn’t take into account the player’s own feelings.

There is also the prospect of something of a reduction of the rivalry between provinces if there are widespread transfers from one to the other. That might be welcomed by some, but it would also deprive Ireland of one of its unique rugby features.

“You just can’t dilute the GAA, the parish, the two out of the game” says Foley. “It’s something we’ve been brought up on. It’s something that is held dear to every player that wants to play for their province. Some are lucky enough to do it.

“Some have to go elsewhere and do it, and become adopted sons of another province. That has worked for some players in the past. I don’t think you can do anything with a sweeping brush.

“You need to see who is up for it and who wants it, you know. As a player, I think a player will always want choice. And it’s important to have that.”

Indeed, every case will be individual and Nucifora is certainly a man who understands that. The Australian will deeply consider every possible inter-provincial transfer on its own merits.

The IRFU’s player management policy has been one of its key strengths in recent seasons, helping Joe Schmidt’s Ireland to success in the Six Nations, but it can be a thorn in the side of the provinces.

Matt O’Connor was openly critical of how often he was denied access to his top international players, although it’s arguable whether this was the greatest issue for Leinster during their decline under his rule.

Connacht team huddle Connacht have benefited from additional IRFU support in recent seasons. Ryan Byrne / INPHO Ryan Byrne / INPHO / INPHO

O’Connor’s protests drew a withering rebuke from Schmidt and Nucifora in an accurately-prepared briefing towards the end of last season.

Schmidt has vehemently denied that he has any say in the provinces’ team selections, but there have been several instances in recent seasons where it strongly appears to have been the case.

You’d be hard pressed to find a provincial coach saying as much, however. O’Connor failed to toe the party line and he is now coaching in Queensland. The life of a provincial coach must be a frustrating thing at times, though they all understand Ireland’s needs.

There is a fine balancing act for Nucifora and Schmidt to lead in the coming seasons, and it may just be that the scales are tilted in Ireland’s favour at present but will return to an even keel before long.

If the current sense that the provinces are becoming more and more secondary continues, however, a potentially messy road lies ahead.

Ensuring the national team remains successful is a no brainer, but many Irish rugby fans first fell in love with the game through the provinces. For many, there will never be anything like following Munster, Ulster or Leinster to a Heineken Cup trophy. Ask Connacht fans about the excitement they feel now.

Important years and important decisions lie ahead for Irish rugby. True interdependence may be the key to success.

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