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How does Leinster’s dominance benefit Irish rugby as a whole?

With so many of Leinster’s best talent paid for by the IRFU, there are concerns this represents an unfair advantage

Glamorous transfer stories featuring exorbitant wages and fees have never been a staple of Irish rugby. The country’s provinces, owned not by a rich individual, but instead the Irish Rugby Football Union (IRFU), often have to fight off foreign clubs offering inflated salaries to their home-grown talent. Provinces don’t get to bring in a steady stream of big names for themselves. Until this week.

In their player recruitment for next season, Leinster have twice broken through cultural norms with the signing of a World Cup-winning South African and a renowned All Black, the latter announced on Tuesday. It’s not quite the equivalent of Real Madrid’s galacticos, but the recruitment of RG Snyman and Jordie Barrett is as close as Irish rugby can get.

The picture in the other provinces is less pretty. Ulster’s financial situation was a contributing factor in the decision to part ways with their sole big name signing, South African Steven Kitshoff, two years before the end of his contract. As things stand, they only have one recognised outhalf on their books for next season. Connacht and Munster also look to be trimming down the size of their playing squads as budgets tighten. Meanwhile, Leinster have made two of the highest-profile signings in their history.

Critics of the inequity label the IRFU’s practice of handing out central contracts as the main issue. When a player is deemed a key part of the Ireland side, he is awarded a rarefied national deal. The IRFU, instead of the province, then pays his increased salary.


Next season, Leinster will have 10 players on central contracts. The other provinces combined will have three. With so many of Leinster’s best talent paid for by the IRFU, there are concerns this represents an unfair advantage. Leinster already have the economic benefit of operating in the biggest city on the island. Why should the IRFU make life easier by paying for their best players, allowing the province to use the money saved to entice the best foreign talent?

At its core, the Irish central contract system is a capitalist meritocracy. The best individual players get rewarded with these well-paid national deals. It doesn’t matter what province they play for. The counter argument to those calling the system unfair is that Leinster developed these players themselves. There is nothing stopping other provinces from bringing through their own talent that ends up on such national contracts.

Yet this sporting free market may well ignore one daunting truth. Is this Leinster dominance of national contracts merely cyclical or here to stay?

What if, after nearly 30 years of professionalism in rugby, Leinster have figured out how to maximise their demographic advantages? The province has developed an efficient system, underpinned by the country’s largest playing pool and highest number of private schools, that continues to raise more internationals than their rivals.

With Leinster set to play their home matches next season at Croke Park and the Aviva Stadium, venues that bring significant ticket revenue, not to mention a sizeable potential fan base that appeals to sponsors and jersey-sellers alike, the province is already a strong commercial entity. If they continue to shift more players on to the IRFU’s dime, they will only get richer in their ability to attract foreign talent. The other provinces may well struggle to maintain a competitive balance.

The IRFU has shown a penchant for paternalistic, left-leaning distribution of resources in the past

Those seeking change want the capitalist system to become more socialist. In these pages during the week, it was reported that the IRFU will review its current contract structure. David Humphreys, former Ireland and Ulster outhalf, replaces David Nucifora this summer as performance director, the man responsible for overseeing the whole contractual process.

Will Humphreys bring about a change in economic philosophy? In the United States, their sporting structures are remarkably left-wing. The worst teams get first rights to the best young talent in the annual draft system, while some sports have a salary cap to stop the richest teams from making a mockery of competitive balance. Closer to home, English and French domestic rugby features a similar limit on how much clubs can spend on player wages.

The IRFU has shown a penchant for paternalistic, left-leaning distribution of resources in the past. The most famous example came when Joey Carbery was encouraged to move from Leinster to Munster to increase his international prospects while also distributing outhalf talent more equitably across the provinces.

The union has a decision to make on to what extent Leinster dominants, should it continue and the benefits Irish rugby as a whole. If the review of the IRFU’s contract structure leads to change, Leinster are unlikely to be happy. They cannot be faulted for demographics and strong talent pathways, but any new policies could nonetheless see resources distributed away from the province.

Given the current trajectory, the days of the free market appear to be numbered. An economic shift to the left seems necessary for Irish rugby.

Nathan Johns

Nathan Johns

Nathan Johns is an Irish Times journalist