League offers valuable learning ground for young players with tangible rewards
Young players are benefiting from a competitive learning environment
Leinster’s Ian Madigan is a player who has thrived on the game time offered by the Pro12. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho
On a superficial level no makeover is going to redefine the image of the RaboDirect Pro12 tournament in the European club rugby community. The Heineken Cup remains the more glamorous sibling, an unchallenged pre-eminence that will continue as long as the competition retains all of its current constituent members.
From a specifically Irish perspective it’s hardly a legitimate comparison because the four provinces must operate under the governance of the IRFU’s Player Management Programme that stipulates the amount of matches Irish squad members are permitted to play in a season. The provinces allocate primacy to the Heineken Cup and so the marquee names are rationed when it comes to the Pro12.
It has long being a bugbear for some of the Welsh and Scottish clubs – the Italians take a more pragmatic view in that they’re chasing points and don’t mind squaring off against “weakened” teams – are subjective in wanting the visiting Irish teams to be liberally sprinkled with household names to facilitate ticket sales.
Criticism is also directed from outside the tournament as the English clubs in particular bemoan the fact that qualification for the Heineken Cup is not drawn specifically from the final Pro12 standings.
They argue that it allows the Pro12 clubs to rest front-line players in the build-up to European Cup matches whereas they are not afforded the same latitude in the Aviva Premiership because qualification depends directly on final standings.
The IRFU and by extension the provinces are correct not to worry about the aesthetics of the Pro12 format. They can put forward the fact that Irish teams have provided the winners on seven occasions in the 12 years that the tournament, including previous incarnations, has been staged. The end, for the most part, justifies the means.
What the Pro12 has principally given Irish rugby is a valuable learning environment for young players and the benefits are tangible.
Take Leinster’s Ian Madigan’s case as an example; it works just as well with Simon Zebo (Munster), Luke Marshall (Ulster) and Kieran Marmion (Connacht) as case studies, names taken from a substantial list.
In the 2010-2011 season Madigan started seven matches in the – as it was then – Magners League and came on as a replacement nine times. He came off the bench twice in Heineken Cup matches. The following year he started 15 games, participating in 21, and in Europe started one game and came on in four more.
Last season the talented outhalf played 23 matches (186 points) in the Pro12, a run-on in 18. He started four Heineken Cup matches, came on in two more and played three Amlin Challenge Cup knockout games. He made his debut for Ireland as a replacement against France in the Six Nations championship and added three more caps, two as the starting outhalf in the summer tour of North America.
The Pro12 has allowed Madigan to refine and develop his game, taking responsibility as Leinster’s primary playmaker and outhalf for much of that tournament. The strides he’s made are evident for all to see.
Jonathan Sexton’s move means that Madigan will dispute the number 10 jersey with Jimmy Gopperth but he’ll do so with three years competitive mileage and a responsibility that has increased year on year.
Variety of routes
The role of the academy players in the four provinces throughout the Pro 12 season has become increasingly important something which Rob Penney (Munster) and Mark Anscombe (Ulster) understand and new coaches, Matt O’Connor (Leinster) and Pat Lam (Connacht), will quickly appreciate. It’s not all about academies, far from it as players come through regularly by a variety of routes and that’s a healthy state of affairs.
The key though to a successful season in the Pro12 is how those resources are juggled, blending youthful promise and experience. It’s about aptitude and attitude, a case of trying to invest in the future while eking out short-term dividends. The national side is an important beneficiary too.
There’s a massive incentive there for the younger players but while talent negotiates an opportunity the coaches will demand a consistent quality in terms of performance, a skill set that stands up under pressure and a mental toughness to function in that environment. The Pro12 is not a child minding facility.
Lam, having arrived early to enjoy a watchful brief over the tail end of Eric Elwood’s reign as Connacht coach, identified a pathway for the development of his young players. He explained: “Because we don’t have a lot of depth in resources we brought all the academy guys into training (with the senior squad). We are going to need everybody as we go through a long season.
“We integrated the whole programme. It’s different to New Zealand in that you can actually pick them (academy players to play for Connacht). You couldn’t do that back home. They have to go through a process. So I said if you are good enough you are old enough but you have to do the work.
“The only way that Gavin (Duffy), Michael Swift and John Muldoon are going to get better is competition coming through. We have a very good base but there is a big gap below that and we have to try and bridge that. That’s where the real difference is in terms of the other squads. You lose Gavin Duffy, Eoin Griffin, Robbie Henshaw, the next one coming through . . . there’s a big gap compared to some of those other teams. That’s where we’re at.”
Munster coach Penney had to endure some lumps and bumps last season in playing terms, as he presided over a period of appreciable transition in style and playing personnel. He remained resolute. The incremental improvement was evident at the tail end of last season.
The evolution might be a little more brisk in this season’s Pro12 as coach and players have a better grasp of each other’s ways and what’s possible.
Penney pointed out that getting the blend right in crucial: “Look, every team will have bad days and so forth but every time you play in a Rabo game, there are going to be some international players and experience that is invaluable.
“The team that played a lot of Rabo games for Munster (last season) at times didn’t have a lot of that experience. So we found challenges that we didn’t cope with very well. From those lessons, going into this year, I’d expect to see a positive shift in the right direction.”
Ulster coach Anscombe is further down that track, inheriting and then subscribing to a policy of rotating the introduction of young players while maintaining an experienced spine to the team. Marshall, Craig Gilroy, Paddy Jackson, Iain Henderson and Stuart Olding, to chose but four, are products of that attitude.
Anscombe, speaking in general terms, about the talent coming through the province explained: “They’re all young men and a lot of them have an awful lot to learn. There are going to be some really tough times in their career and some great times. That comes with the territory and it comes with the game.
“They’re all young and the exciting thing is that for the next five to 10 years you’re going to see these guys around and each year they’re going to improve and learn more and get more experience. From that point of view, it’s really good for Ulster rugby.”
Leinster captain Leo Cullen is equally enthused about the calibre of the academy players he trains with on a daily basis. “I have a lot of faith with what’s always coming through the system. That’s the challenge for us, making sure we have that. The Academy are with us every day and you can see them growing from the minute they come in. They come in almost naked from school and how they develop is really exciting.”
O’Connor gave over 30 players, not including a dozen established names who were missing, the chance to impress in a pre-season friendly against the Northampton Saints eight days ago. It was an imperfect vehicle giving the chopping and changing throughout the game but the Australian sees them every day in training. Between the two forums he knows who’s progressing.
For the four provincial coaches and the new national coach Joe Schmidt the priority is to minimise the disparity in ability between the front-line players and the secondary and tertiary rosters. The Pro12 facilitates that ambition. For supporters, provincial and those who follow the national team, if you want to glimpse the future, toddle along to a Pro12 match.