Irish rugby: The times they are a-changin’
International selection policy will come under scrutiny should there be player exodus
Ireland internationals Ian Madigan and Simon Zebo could be lining up options to play abroad next season. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho
Reflection, anew. Maybe it’s not as bad as it seems. Maybe the injuries in the four provincial squads just need time to heal.
Maybe the suggestion this week by a man who has coached the youth of this island for a quarter century was an overreaction: he, who must remain nameless, stated that the constant snapping of ligaments and limbs, the worrisome rattling of brains, is clear proof that rugby is not sustainable as a professional sport.
Maybe the players won’t leave en masse despite English clubs suddenly offering to double their wages. Maybe we are not hearing constant grumblings from inside the provincial camps about the IRFU high performance director David Nucifora. Maybe this is just that difficult second year for the 53-year-old Australian charged with moulding modern Irish rugby.
Maybe there simply isn’t enough euros in the coffers to bring Stephen Moore to Munster or Victor Vito to Ulster or keep Ben Te’o at Leinster. Maybe the idea that Isa Nacewa be redirected to Connacht, when he sought to rejoin Leinster, was more Chinese whispers than ridiculous suggestion.
Maybe it will work itself out. Maybe we should believe in the powers-that-be. Maybe we are all just resistant to change. Or maybe we should give up; pack it in and get ready for the Euros in France ( while a severely under-strength Ireland will be trudging towards the high veldt. There is grim and then there is the promised catastrophe of a three-Test series against the Springboks eight months after a World Cup and an incessant club season).
Maybe the suggestion this week by a person close to the comings and goings of players that the dam is about to break is just timely scaremongering. Or part of the high-stakes negotiations between agents and Nucifora and Joe Schmidt (who, be under no illusion, is involved in everything).
Maybe Wasps hammering Leinster in the RDS or Saracens battering Ulster at Ravenhill were bumpety blips. Maybe it’s the World Cup’s fault. That has to be it. Blame the World Cup for everything; for the injuries, for the beltings taken by the provinces in the Champions Cup.
But no, the cleanest tournament in the history of sport (ever) is well past. Leicester and Toulon – both with heavy numbers at the World Cup – are hell bent at proving that’s the case at Thomond Park tonight and Stade Felix Mayol tomorrow.
Remember the power struggle that tickertaped across the bottom of your screen last year? The one where the English and French clubs wrestled control of European rugby? Now comes the manifestation of that divvying up of the spoils. Much evidence is already before us. Like all brutal takeovers, the conquered comply or they are eradicated.
“There is big money on offer to a lot of Irish players from the UK and France,” said another knowledgeable source on these matters. “It isn’t just France anymore. To be honest the provinces simply can’t compete and the IRFU are refusing to help them, so in my view there will be three or four current internationals who will leave in the next month or so.
“The money is too big to turn down.”
On Thursday Mal O’Kelly, Paul Wallace and Victor Costello stood among us little people in the Aviva Stadium’s President’s Suite discussing the old days. It was November 1995 when this trio were part of the first Leinster sortie onto mainland Europe.
In was a time when the IRFU were so blatantly unprepared for the leap into the professional era.
Unsurprisingly these talented young men followed the money. Wallace was already dancing back and forth from Saracens. Within a year, O’Kelly and Costello had joined London Irish.
They all, eventually, returned to Dublin but the damage was swift. Not one Irish province made the knockout stages in 1998. A different time but a cautionary tale nonetheless.
The golden generation that came after have since passed into shadow. It begs the question: is another mass exodus imminent? “I think it would be better to see Ian Madigan playing for Harlequins every week then sitting on the bench at Leinster,” said Wallace. “I think it would be better for Ireland.”
By 2001 Wallace was corralled back to Leinster by the simplest form of blackmail/flattery. Return or forget about wearing a green jersey.
“We were told, you are not going to get picked until you come home. It was a very unfair thing at the time . . . I had offers to stay with Sarries or a big-money move to France or Sale. But the other reason was I had a broken leg and was going to play less rugby at home.
“I thought it would be 60-40 that they would pick the home-based player for Ireland. I was told it was more like 80-20.”
That tough love approach served Ireland well. Until now. Can the IRFU remain slavishly loyal to this policy if, for example, Madigan and Simon Zebo move abroad this summer?
“I think they should pick the Irish players abroad,” said Wallace. “England don’t have to because of their resources. It worked before because so much young talent arrived on the scene but, to be honest, I don’t think it would have worked out without Brian.”
O’Driscoll spurned the advances of Biarritz because he sensed the lean towards a ruthless winning mentality when Michael Cheika walked through the changing room door with that menacing grin in 2005. O’Driscoll stayed because he craved success. When one European trophy came they all strived for greatness. They became unbeatable in their own minds. They injected success into their bloodstream.
That’s over now. No European silverware has been captured since 2013, so does Costello, the retired number eight who still bleeds Leinster blue, think the next Brian O’Driscoll will go abroad if, as is generally expected, this period of rebuilding yields no success?
“I do, yeah. I mean, that’s the problem with a team not winning. A team not happy together. A team that is happy together and settled will win. We need to get back to that stage by winning and performing and training and winning.
“It comes back to the discussion of [when contract negotiations should take place]. Making this decision mid-season is tough on everyone. If there’s a transitional period, embrace the transition; pick your younger guys, and the younger guys in Leinster particularly are able to perform. You’ve got to back them, and if at the end of the season, it looks like you’ve got a good few years left to go, then absolutely. But don’t be having this in the press the week before a bloody Toulon game.
“Some of these things are unavoidable, but it just adds to the negative.”
A heavy defeat to the most freakish collection of players ever assembled will sink matters deeper into the mire. The Leinster handicap is minus 15 points. The descent into doom and gloom seems to be happening at an uncontrollable pace.
“I don’t think players want to go,” Wallace added. “Just look at Johnny. I don’t think he really wanted to go. It wasn’t all about money. He wanted to stay and if negotiations had been under different circumstances he would have.
“Players are very slow to go and what David Nucifora is saying about moving players around the provinces to get game time is the big one.”
Gordon D’Arcy made a valid point in his column the week before last. Players not getting picked for their provinces should go abroad without fear of being ignored by the Ireland coach. Keep the best 20-25 on national contract, sure, but use the Top 14 and Premiership to relieve congestion in certain positions, like backrow.
“I think players have a decision to make,” he said. “If you want to be starting for Ireland week in week out and looked after under the Irish system, you obviously need to stay here. But there are other guys who need to go and get game time and are obviously not going to get that in the provinces, so you wouldn’t blame them for going abroad.
“I can only speak for myself; I had two great years away but the most important thing for me was playing for Ireland and I only realised that when I was gone.
“I wasn’t able to do that to the best of my ability in terms of coming home for Six Nations and going back [to France] for games in between and not getting that rest between Six Nations matches. It just wasn’t ideal so I decided to come home.
“I was very lucky that I was still getting picked when I was abroad but is it worth some guys going and sacrificing two years to get game time? I don’t know. That’s a question for those guys. The best place for an Irish international is at home. Hopefully we will retain most of those guys, hopefully all of them.”
Anyway, it felt like an awfully long week. Grim medical updates. Connacht were down to 23 players (just the one hooker and scrumhalf).
Talk of Madigan heading to England. Or Munster. Ben Te’o will be gone before we really get to see how good he will surely become.
Most of the good eggs were placed in the World Cup basket. Lots of snapped ligaments came out of that failed campaign. Iain Henderson is gone the way of O’Connell. Seán O’Brien can’t find any equilibrium under his feet.
But maybe it’s not so bad. Let’s see what Monday morning brings. Hope springs from the most curious places.
You can start from anything, but it’s worth remembering the seasons flip in the southern hemisphere when Ireland land in South Africa next June.
Winter is staying. Wrap up.