Alan Quinlan: Resting players for biggest derby of season does nothing for reputation of Pro12
International game calls the tune in Ireland because that’s the system we’ve chosen
Dave O’Callaghan scores a try for Munster against Leinster on St Stephen’s Day, a game that featured none of the regular Irish internationals. Photograph: Dan Sheridan
It’s three years ago last week since the IRFU announced their new policy on overseas players. Or non-Irish eligible players, as they called them at the time. In the three years since, the policy has been generally enforced – with a few exceptions.
All in all, you’d have to say that they are achieving their objective, which was to provide at least two quality players for each position on the pitch.
But equally, there is no doubt that the problems we all foresaw at the time are taking hold as well. As the job of providing players for the Ireland team has taken priority, the welfare of the provinces has suffered.
We’ve been talking all season about the problems Irish teams have trying to compete with the big budget French and English teams, and this is just another strand of it.
Whether the focus moving from the provinces to the national team is a good or a bad thing probably depends on your own personal point of view. But I don’t think anyone can argue the focus has shifted.
We all know people in the provinces who would far rather see the teams they support being in with a shout of winning in Europe ahead of whatever happens with Ireland. They are the die-hard fans and they feel a certain amount of ownership and investment in what happens to the provinces. I know a lot of them were very unhappy to see the Munster and Leinster game on St Stephen’s Day go ahead without so many frontline players.
The IRFU’s Player Welfare Programme is another policy that succeeds in what it is trying to do – keeping the international players in top shape physically and mentally and not flogging them the way other nations do – but again, its effects are felt in a detrimental way when it comes to the provinces. Nobody has any major issue with taking players out of Pro12 matches here and there but doing it for Munster v Leinster is a bit much.
At least that’s how it feels for people in and around the provincial set-ups. Maybe the truth is that the wider public don’t mind it as much. People tend to follow success after all, and it’s clear that the greatest chance of success in Irish rugby just now is with the national team.
The fans who appeared out of nowhere when Munster were winning Heineken Cups and when Leinster were doing the same, maybe they’re happy enough now to switch onto the Ireland team. Their thinking is probably that if a Pro12 game around Christmas suffers as a result, so be it. Even if it is Munster v Leinster.
When you’re a player stuck in the middle of all this, you’re actually quite relieved all these decisions are being made above your head. Your IRFU contract is the be-all and end-all. You do what you’re told. You go where you’re sent. Everybody understands that, so you don’t get any grief.
It wasn’t always that way. I remember when the provincial set-ups were just getting going and we were being taken away from our clubs, the tensions used to be huge. Shannon people who had developed us and nurtured us all the way up along were raging to be told they didn’t have first call on us anymore.
It caused an undercurrent between the guys who were playing for Munster and the ones who weren’t. People would have seen us as being treated differently – staying away with Munster, missing training for a couple of weeks at a time but coming back and playing and going straight into the team. That caused hassle and strain and it was the players who were caught in the middle.
Everything is so much more professional now and the whole thing has moved on. Now it’s province v country rather than province v club and the balance of power has shifted. But on a basic human level, those tensions can still exist. Nobody is going to kick up a fuss over a Paul O’Connell or a Jamie Heaslip slotting straight back into the team after being away with Ireland but it’s when you get a bit lower down the food chain that things get trickier.
It’s nothing major, no big bust-ups or anything like that. But if you took someone like me who was on the fringes of Ireland squads but also playing in a very competitive area of the team with Munster, that possibility was there for a bit of friction to develop.
I could go to Dublin for half the week to train with Ireland without making it into the match-day 22 and then head back to Munster to play on the weekend. Sometimes I did feel that bit of tension, that fellas were looking at me and going, “Well, is he here or isn’t he? What’s the point him going up there if he can’t get into the team?”
There was such competition for places in the backrow at Munster at the time. You knew that there were guys there who felt they weren’t getting opportunities with the province because I was in the pecking order ahead of them. You knew as well that they felt that if they did get a chance, they could be the ones going to train with the Ireland team. They probably thought they could do a better job when they got there.
In a World Cup year, the potential is there for those small tensions to be amplified. Getting into the squad is in the back of players’ minds from a long way out and if your team-mates in the province or the staff start to think you’re playing with one eye on the World Cup, they don’t be long letting you know about it.
You can tie yourself in knots between trying to perform in each game because you know you’re being watched by the Irish management and making a mess of your week-to-week game by thinking too far ahead. The worst thing you can do is force your game.
For one thing, it very rarely works and you just end up making mistakes. For another, what you’re doing is obvious to the people who are around you every day.
So it can be tough, trying to serve two masters. That’s why it’s a relief when the decision is taken out of your hands.
Ask any of the Leinster or Munster players what their choice would have been and they’d have wanted to play in that game last Friday night. But at the same time, players are selfish. Once they knew they weren’t playing, it wouldn’t have been hard to convince them of the benefits of missing it.
A game like Munster v Leinster is one you wind yourself up for. It doesn’t matter where it comes in the season or what the state of play is with Ireland at the time – if you know your week ends with that game, you spend the days leading up to it getting yourself into the right frame of mind. That takes a lot of work, a lot of prep, a lot of mental exercise. And then the game is usually brutal physically on top of it all.
International players’ main focus is on playing for their country. That’s who their employer is. That’s who decides their next contract. So if you look at it clinically and without emotion, it’s right that they be given a rest over Christmas and spared the toll taken on their minds and bodies by a big Munster v Leinster game. That will benefit them hugely with the Six Nations just five weeks away.
Players are professional. They prepare for each game on its merits. There have always been different levels of games and the Munster v Leinster games were always seen as that cut above ordinary Pro12 games. But with all the players rested last week, that has changed now. The international game has won another little victory over the domestic game. Players mightn’t like it but they just have to do as they’re told.
The system is the system. Whatever about the problems created on a micro level, it is the one that people generally agree works the best on a macro level. Ireland end the year as Six Nations champions and ranked third in the world. The system exists for the promotion of the international team. That’s the bottom line.
You have to wonder though how long it will take for the balance to tip back towards the provinces. It’s hard to imagine it going all the way back but a few sustained years of failure in Europe will ask some very hard questions.