Developing the next generation key for the IRFU
Bringing through players for the national team is key to IRFU strategy according to the union’s director of rugby
Connacht’s Robbie Henshaw made his Ireland debut on the summer tour earlier this year
It is very simple. The IRFU, as their director of rugby Eddie Wigglesworth explains, live and breathe off the national team. Everything else is background noise. Decent tunes but background noise nonetheless.
In the wake of the 2011 World Cup, which was ultimately a failure, even after beating Australia, the union reached a tipping point.
They had a solid plan in theory but waiting until Christmas week to roll out their “refinement process” caused all sorts of screaming.
Top of the list was the edict that no foreign player in the provincial system will have his contract renewed. This was to open the road for indigenous talent.
Also, props were in high demand. John Hayes was just days from leaving the Bull’s field for the last time and beneath his massive frame it was all shadow. And foreign tightheads.
The union decreed that only one non-Irish eligible player in each position spread over Munster, Ulster and Leinster would be permitted.
Connacht, like any youngest child can tell you, were told they were grand and excluded from all this adult conversation.
The initial achievement by the union was to upset an awful lot of people one rung down the food chain.
In those dead days between St Stephen’s Day and New Year’s the four provincial coaches produced a united front with Joe Schmidt, now inside the fence, the most coherent in his criticism of the IRFU plan.
It got tasty. No more medium term contracts for the likes of Doug Howlett, Isa Nacewa or BJ Botha. It seemed like that type of player would be opting for the French lifestyle over Dublin, Cork, Limerick or Belfast henceforth.
Also, those recruited from abroad would be “position specific” (that idea was quickly deemed unworkable and discarded).
The IRFU Director of Rugby Eddie Wigglesworth came out and defended the union’s plan.
“The IRFU have a responsibility to deliver for the national team,” he said. “Joe is not one of these guys who just takes a personal view in terms of what is best for him. He has a very holistic and long-term approach but, at the end of the day, he is only going to be here for four or five years.
“We have been around for 130 years and we have to be around successfully for another 130 years. We have to take a much wider scope of things.”
Nothing like a good family row at Christmas time to clear the air.
“I feel communications are much better now,” said Leinster manager Guy Easterby recently. “You can present points reasonably and they can be listened to. There’s some flexibility. If they come back with genuine reasons, you have to accept that and it works both ways.”
Things have certainly changed. Look at Leinster’s propping options now. Three deep Irish qualified.
So, half way towards the next World Cup in England, what is the state of Irish rugby’s succession plan?
Eddie Wigglesworth sat down with The Irish Times.
Gavin Cummiskey: Eddie, in December 2011 the IRFU told Leinster, Munster and Ulster they must have at least two Irish qualified players in each of their 15 positions so only one foreign player would be contracted across the three provinces in each position. Almost two years later, is the plan working?
Eddie Wigglesworth: Listen, when we did this it was blown out of all proportion. There was no change in the allocation of the number [of foreign players]. It was four plus one [a player who can qualify for Ireland via residency] and is still four plus one and all we were saying was within the allocation we need to get sensible in terms of Ireland.
It wasn’t an issue about numbers it was about, as you well know, where the numbers were stacked across the 15 field positions.
A hugely important part of that aspect was trying to get across a realisation, and I think we have got it across that Leinster, Munster, Ulster and Connacht are not viable propositions unless the national team is doing well.
Simple as that; all our money comes from the national team.
The fact of the matter is if Ireland is not doing well it doesn’t matter how well the provinces do, Ireland doing well is an overriding factor.
In professional sport there is one single big thing that dominates everything and that’s money, okay?
So, this plan made sense.
We took some convenient decisions. For example, BJ Botha and John Afoa [given new contracts in Munster and Ulster]. Both the provinces are weak [at tighthead prop]. What we need to do is allow a degree of self sufficiency and at the same time get agreement from Munster and Ulster to say at the end of their contracts that we will be self sufficient with props.
Afoa is signed to the end of this year, Botha to the end of 20014/15 and in the interim all the progressive work is being done to make sure the (Irish) props come through.
That you can see is happening.
Ulster are not that strong in the propping position and they have a particular difficulty that we have to look at and consider but in the rest of the positions it has panned out.
Lock is not an issue. You’ve got Quinn Roux*, Johann Muller, Nick Williams at six, CJ Stander* at six/eight, Ruan Pienaar at nine, Jimmy Gopperth at 10, Zane Kirchner at 11, Andrew Goodman at 12, Casey Laulala at 13 and Jared Payne* at 15 and a new guy coming in at 14, Gerhard van den Heever, for Munster.
(*eventually Irish qualified)
So, has it worked? Yeah. Has it been a pain? Yeah. Are we still in transition? Absolutely yes, but the interesting thing about it is even though we have allowed four (foreigners) plus one special project case, Leinster and Munster have only filled four of their allocations. Now Leinster may have to go back to the well because of the Richardt Strauss situation.
Ulster may pull back as well because they have got players coming through.
But there will always be a critical position in Irish rugby.
GC: What about repeat contracts? You have addressed it with props but take Ruan Pienaar. You said in 2011 the union didn’t what a situation where frontline positions were being blocked for second and third choice Irish qualified players, and Ulster do have good scrumhalves. Paul Marshall is a decent player yet Pienaar has been re-signed, why?
EW: One of the guiding principles that we don’t articulate in any document is: thou shalt not shoot yourself in the foot. Where we have need to allow flexibility with the provinces we have done so.
GC: Okay, but taking the Pienaar example again as he has just re-signed, when do you get rid of the foreign world class scrumhalf and allow Irish qualified scrumhalves to come through?
EW: That is a valid point and there is no easy answer to that other than to say you have to be working on the situation between now until two years after the next World Cup to make sure you have at least three options.
We probably do have three [international standard] scrumhalves at the moment and that’s why the Pienaar thing is not a critical issue.
In the same way we allowed Munster to recruit Botha. It was in contravention of our guidelines but that’s all they are, guidelines.
The provinces need to be blinkered, and that’s right and proper, so it is difficult to achieve what we want to achieve because of the intense rivalry between the provinces. We want all four of them to deliver on behalf of the national team. That can be difficult because of the commercial pressures to succeed and coaches live on their CV and reputation.
That all creates a dynamic within the Irish structure. New Zealand had the same situation but they adjusted and modified their system with their franchises to ensure everyone was working for the betterment of the All Blacks.
We want to create that similar situation.
GC: You said two years ago that injury is the single biggest opportunity for players to come through in the system . . .
EW: Marty Moore proved it last week . . .
GC: Yeah, he did, but what about when Lote Tuqiri comes in as a short term foreign signing [after Eoin O’Malley injury enforced retirement], landing in before Brendan Macken got his chance at outside centre?
EW: It is all down to the quantitative value of the player. Our level of intrusion, and the Lote Tuqiri thing is a short term situation.
It ultimately affects the provinces to a far greater degree if they don’t give the opportunity to another set of players to come through and play. I think most of the coaches now fully understand and appreciate that.
If for example the Rabo becomes based on meritocracy, then every game in the Rabo is critical and fundamental. This would be fantastic for the Irish teams because now we will simply have to perform. It would lift the whole concept of the Rabo and drive the whole succession strategy. I would just see us getting stronger and stronger.
One thing I have is an absolute faith in the Irish player to perform on the world stage. Sometimes we get very excited about that and we do get annoyed when provinces put in applications for foreign players because we have our own views about the players we have in the system.
GC: Does that happen a lot?
EW: There are the ones John West, of the PCRG (professional contracts review group), rejects but it is very subtle and you never hear about it.
GC: Well, give us a few examples?
EW: Absolutely not. Do you know why? Because the player or the player’s agent doesn’t want to hear about it. But yes there are a whole plethora.
GC: Leinster’s Guy Easterby said recently that there is a better working relationship now than was previously enjoyed?
EW: Well, I went to confession about four years ago and told the priest that nobody liked me and he said, ‘That’s not unusual.’
GC: What about position specific, taking the example of Zane Kirchner, is he to play fullback and wing or can he be used across the backline like Isa Nacewa?
EW: That’s a valid point. Take Jared Payne as an example. He has predominantly, since he has come to Ulster, played at fullback but his forte is probably 13.
GC: He may be the next Irish 13…
EW: He could be. That’s up to the national coach. When we bring them in it is position specific. Where there is an injury to the Irish-based players and there is a degree of flexibility needed.
GC: So you don’t put a block on that?
EW: No, we don’t.
GC: Five foreigner players allowed in the system until 2014/15, four plus one, does it change then?
EW: We would be looking to review downwards. That is still under debate.
GC: Another issue in Irish rugby is there will be bottlenecks in certain positions, like backrow for an obvious example.
EW: Colin McEntee’s job [as high performance manager] is to create such a bottleneck so that the sum of the outcome of our academy structures will have to go abroad. You want a backlog in your succession planning. There are currently 47 or 48 Irish guys playing in England.
GC: Is it the end of the world then if Leinster’s best backrowers (Sean O’Brien and Jamie Heaslip) go overseas as that opens the road for those (Dominic Ryan and Jordi Murphy) just below them?
EW: The Northern Hemisphere season is hugely attritional so not alone do you need your first choice but you need your second and third choice as well.
Johnny Sexton is the high profile example. Just look at how many games he has played [for racing Metro 92].
GC: Is it feasible for us to get that depth across four provinces?
EW: I think we can. Will we be able to service the need of our four franchises? Absolutely. We have a challenge in terms of player movement because provincialism is very strong. A guy comes out of the Leinster academy and he wants to play for Leinster.
That is starting to shift. Guys realise there is no point sitting on the Leinster bench as the years tick by.
GC: Okay, but can the IRFU do more here? We see Kurtley Beale being told where they are going by the ARU.
EW: It’s a really valid point and a constant debate. We try to do player movement by consensus.
You can’t go into a province, put a lead around a guy’s neck and haul him off somewhere else. There is a consensus aspect to this.
If that doesn’t work maybe the union have to consider another option. As you rightly point out, the method in Australia and New Zealand is different to the way we do it.
Have we a definitive policy on how to deal with player movement? Not yet.
GC: I know there was difficulty flogging 10 year tickets and problems with top players getting poached and the European Cup situation, but is Irish rugby in a good place at the moment?
EW: I think we are in a good place. We have got young players coming through the system.
I remember going back 10 years and wondering where are we going to get the next number 10 after O’Gara.
The question now is how good is that next 10 going to be.
GC: Are we going to see a performance director?
EW: I believe that is going to happen.