Let's field all-native frontrows where possible


One way of tackling our scrum deficiencies is to ‘encourage’ provinces to go the full Irish, writes LIAM TOLAND

ALAN GAFFNEY arrived into my life way back in 2000 while I was at Leinster. I inquired of his pedigree and soon found out he was out of the Randwick Rugby Club stable of excellent backs coaches that had influenced a generation of world class players. That was no surprise as I trusted Matt Williams to source quality and he had chosen well in his ambition for Leinster to journey toward success and professionalism; where they have long since arrived.

That Gaffney was a backs coach was a surprise as so too was head coach Williams. As captain, I asked Williams who was going to coach the forwards now we had two backs at the helm. With typical Aussie confidence, ‘I am’, was the answer. In fairness, he did an excellent job but I now wonder how many coaches in club or school would have the confidence to tackle the scrum without the support Williams had in Roly Meates. How many coaches at any level in Ireland can swing both ways, so to speak.

On foot of the recent IRFU report On Club Engagement Meetings, I wondered if hidden amongst the obvious questions did someone ask can you coach tighthead props at the level you currently coach?

The word “prop” doesn’t appear once in the 32 page document, nor “scrum/tighthead/loosehead”, but there is one reference to “frontrow” when it concluded worryingly on page 14, “It also needs to be highlighted that a number of teams have folded due to the loss of players in key positions, especially frontrow forwards”.

In the absence of starting teams but conscious of next week, I can only assume both Tony McGahan and Joe Schmidt will be togging out their Heineken Cup players tomorrow in Thomond Park.

This, of course, is more than understandable as their very future depends on the Heineken Cup. I assume Brian McLaughlin, having presided over the resurgence of Ulster’s European glory, thought as much.

However, with much debate and introspection post “Twickenhamgate” there is a possible gentle solution available to the IRFU that matches of tomorrow’s significance can afford. Rather than the IRFU regulating more rigidly the importing of players (especially frontrows), why not regulate the playing time or playing opportunities afforded our Irish born/eligible players?

To a degree this happens in reverse where our “elite” players are restricted in their maximum match output per season. The provincial coaches tend, under IRFU dictates, to prioritise based on their Heineken Cup commitments. Could the same system operate in reverse?

Clearly there is need for cutting edge technical knowledge to torrent its way from the top of the game all the way to the future players. How far down this torrent goes is the question as the deeper you go, the more expensive it becomes.

How many coaches in our game could articulate life in the scrum as Emmett Byrne did in these pages recently? At what point do future scrummagers become exposed to that level of understanding? If our coaches aren’t up to it or being educated fast by the IRFU, then we need players such as BJ Botha to come into the provinces and teach the current squad members through example and tuition. This education is invaluable but far too late for Irish rugby and its rebirth, and it’s costly.

I would love to do a straw poll on all those coaching forwards (and head coaches) on their understanding and competence in developing tightheads. Would it be less than 50 per cent or worse? What of the schools and youths system? What then is the solution?

More scrum doctors are required beyond those at professional level such as Meates, Byrne, Séamus Hearty, Des Fitzgerald, Paul Wallace and many more; train the trainers. Spanish soccer has won mega prizes on foot of their youth system and Irish rugby needs to go there (expensive).

In the meantime, there is a further option, based on one simple principle: Leinster don’t need Brian O’Driscoll to play in the pool stages but they do need him in the play-offs. Leinster of yore would have needed him at every cockfight but the culture that currently exists amongst the management and players means both Eoin O’Malley and Fergus McFadden have more than equipped themselves at the high octane level of the Heineken Cup (and the Rabo Direct) in his absence.

This principle can be extended to the frontrow where our provinces can be “encouraged” on certain fixtures to have all Irish. Tomorrow in Thomond Park would be a classic opportunity to get two Irish frontsrows out on the field. So the IRFU could implement a rule under certain circumstances that interprovincial matches in the RaboDirect would contain Irish eligible frontrow players only (exceptions must apply).

Each province play a total of six interpros per season, guaranteeing top end competition for the frontrows. Connacht, having more meagre resources, may have a slight addendum to the rule. The rule could be extended beyond the interprovincial matches into the RaboDirect, to another three games of the coaches’ choosing.

As the AIL developed under the strain of the professional game, many of the top club sides would stack their bench with their stars to balance the needs of the team and their players.

Most professional sides are conducting major frontrow substitutions mid-match anyway, so this system could work. The coach still has his assets for the Heineken Cup matches and in the meantime two halves could equal one match, affording our “junior” props actual pitch time in very meaningful games.

PS. I’ve shared many dressingrooms in my past and had the pleasure to sit beside many of the greats. Yet another one of them passes into the good night with Shane Horgan adding his name to the great wall.

In the old days when both he and O’Driscoll graced the same pitch, Leinster won. If either were missing they lost. Time has moved on to where Leinster can cope in their absence and that has happened due to their contributing enormously to that culture. Shane has departed a far greater side than the one he entered 14 years ago. That cultural journey has not been easy but it is testament to him that the greatest gift he has given Leinster is that it will continue to shine in his absence.

I’ve many memories of his time with Lansdowne, Leinster and Ireland and the iconic tries he scored (England, 2007) but the one that will stick with me longest is one he scored while at centre for Leinster way back in the amateur/professional days. He caught the ball behind his back 30 metres out, leaving it there in his giant paw as his youthful gallop slid through the confused opposition to score under the posts.