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Leinster provide too many players to the national squad for it to be an equitable system

Munster are treading a similar path to last season, pulling out some great wins away from home. They know the virtues of timing a run, better than most

There is an air of subjectivity to the recent debate over IRFU central or national contracts that is skewed along provincial lines, or if you prefer the “haves” (Leinster) and the “have nots” (Munster, Ulster, and Connacht).

When one province, in this case, Leinster, dominates the allocation of central contracts – the IRFU pays those salaries in full – it gives them increased spending power for recruitment relative to their provincial siblings.

It’s hard to argue that the Leinster players chosen are not deserving of national contracts, nor are there glaring oversights elsewhere, albeit that Munster outhalf Jack Crowley and Connacht wing Mack Hansen are compiling pretty strong cases for an upgrade.

Leinster provide too many players to the national squad for it to be an equitable system, and that is the outgoing IRFU performance director’s legacy. One team as the primary supplier to the national squad, a system that rewards pre-existing structures (ie the Leinster school’s system), and one that has allowed other provincial pathways to meander off-course in talent production, quantity and quality is far from ideal.


There was always the potential for an overly concentrated supply chain from one source pathway and Irish rugby has pretty much sleepwalked into that position. There were tentative steps taken in relocating resources from Leinster to the other provinces, both academy and senior players, with muted success.

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Joey Carbery and Andrew Conway were two of the more high-profile successful examples, transplanted from Leinster to Munster where they became regular starters. Carbery understudied Johnny Sexton for Ireland in the periods when the former was injury-free, while Conway also graduated to become a frontline Test match player after moving south.

That type of “strategic” or “consultant” approach to Irish rugby, trying to share the existing assets rather than create them, exposed the limitations of the Leinster system and a pronounced lack of ambition – or perhaps it’s fairer to say, expertise and sharp governance – elsewhere.

It has been clear long before I started writing that the other provinces’ development pathways needed investment. I’d be at pains to point out this is not a criticism of the work done or the quality of players outside of Leinster, but to suggest what could be possible with more resources.

That has to be a fundamental aspiration in improving the elite player development pathways in the other three provinces. The Leinster system can support itself, but it was not designed to supplement the other provinces. It is the main thoroughfare at the moment for player development in the country and that’s not always a good thing.

It would be great if there were other routes to the professional game, but few players will have Tadhg Beirne’s tenacity to negotiate the harder road through the All Ireland League and going abroad, all the while fighting against closed doors and injury.

Last weekend in Johannesburg, Leinster opted to heavily rotate their squad for the game against the Lions at Ellis Park. Leinster head coach Leo Cullen chose to select just six of the match day 23 from the La Rochelle Champions Cup win and for the majority of those in action it was their first start in a while.

The upshot was a disjointed performance as the visitors struggled in most aspects of the game. The Lion’s pace and ability on the counterattack made life difficult and Leinster look very ordinary. The gap between most of the travelling party and those who stayed in Dublin was very evident.

That might feel a touch harsh on some of the less experienced players who are normally surrounded by seasoned internationals. You could see that experience and nous in the way that Charlie Ngatai, Cian Healy and Scott Penny read the game.

In both attack and defence, too many of their team-mates were slavishly playing to a system, without the confidence, experience, or capability to do something different when it stopped working. Ngatai’s quality shone bright, tuning into the flow of the game, choosing between carrying and passing at the right times to not only get over the gainline but ensure quick ball.

There is no arguing with the result, but Leinster’s performance will need to be picked apart and then recalibrated in advance of their trip to Cape Town and a game against the Stormers this weekend. A second successive defeat on their South African tour and Leinster’s buffer at the top of the table will be wiped out.

That quest for a top two finish in the league stage would get appreciably harder. Leinster have been down the road before and are familiar with the risk involved when trying to apportion their resources to fight on two fronts; just ask Jake White.

Success is paramount. You can have all the national contracts you want but without the silverware it leaves a hollow ring to a season. Every team is judged on trophies won. Munster are the only Irish province to manage that feat over the past couple of seasons and they did so the hard way by winning the URC on the road.

A red card for Bulls outhalf Johan Goosen was certainly a pivotal moment but it in no way detracts from the quality of Munster’s victory at Loftus Versfeld, a win that spoke volumes about the character of the group.

Graham Rowntree’s charges are benefiting from a settled squad, where partnerships have developed right across the board, feeding into a strong team a dynamic: the centre pairing of Alex Nankevill and Antoine Frisch, Jack Crowley with Conor Murray or Craig Casey at halfback, Tadhg Beirne, RG Snyman, when fit, the wonderfully versatile Tom Ahern, and the depth of quality in the backrow, is reflected in the high-level rugby produced by the collective.

There might be some tension within the organisation over contracts, but it is transitory and, in most cases, does not drag out. Only in really toxic scenarios are players dragged into disagreements whereby they have to choose a side. Thankfully Munster avoided that eventuality which ensured that the players are fully focused on the task at hand.

Rowntree has proven adept at handling tough situations on the pitch during his tenure, and it doesn’t look this time will be any different. Munster are treading a similar path to last season, pulling out some great wins away from home. They know the virtues of timing a run, better than most.