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Liam Toland: After 23 years of professional rugby are Irish provinces succeeding?

The Irish team punches above its weight, but at provincial level, success is harder to define

What is success? Dare I wonder, in this professional era, what Connacht coach Kieran Keane’s definition might be? In the beginning of professional rugby, Ulster and Leinster were the kingpins – a role not formally given to them but happily carried for well over 100 years of the amateur era.

The first Irish international was played in 1875 against England where Ireland was made up entirely of Leinster (12) and Ulster (8) players. This season thus far Leinster have played 55 players in all Leinster competitions but with 18 playing in the November series and 20 in the Six Nations, with Ulster dwindling behind as both Connacht and Munster have caught up.

A lazy conclusion places all things Leinster successful. But the other provinces, especially Connacht, require a different template

Success, depending on your definition, should never be hostage to cycles, especially when there’s a suitable funnel feeding the professional game. But how do we benchmark the provinces? After 23 years of professional rugby, how should we rate the success of our professional game?

In broad brush strokes, it’s been hugely successful, where the Irish team is consistently punching way above its weight and in the top four of the world. This is the consequence of many factors which, when amalgamated, propel Ireland into consistent contenders.


The next layer down, success is harder to define. A lazy conclusion places all things Leinster successful. But the other provinces, especially Connacht, require a different template. Less so Munster and Ulster. Success should be measured in many ways where oft-times a rugby club deems the season successful if the senior team wins – even when the foundation is flawed. The converse can also be true.

Holy trinity

Part of the success question is framed by the holy trinity of Ireland, province and player, all seen from the perspective of a Joey Carbery. His conundrum will find its own solution; elite rugby tends to.

But what of the many other players who are rarely burdened by the Irish management sitting them down for coffee? I think of Denis Buckley, the loosehead in Connacht who has shone brightly in all things successful over the passing years. Still only 27 years of age, Buckley has had such a positive impact in Connacht and their run to Guinness Pro12 title, but that cap has eluded him. I wonder what is his definition of success.

Clearly the battle at scrum time tires many viewers, but the battle between Buckley and Leinster's Andrew Porter was fascinating. Porter, five years younger, has a Triple Crown and Grand Slam from seven caps and is soon to have a European Champions Cup (now that Racing 92 talisman Maxime Machenaud's knee is ruptured). Irish rugby is anal about minutes played; I wonder are scrums executed or reset scrums or the duration of scrums captured. Porter clearly has had an outstanding entry into top-level rugby but Buckley can teach him many lessons – which, while hard to measure, is a crucial part of Connacht's success.

Alongside Buckley, another loosehead prop, Callum Black, has impressed for Ulster down the years. I recall his powerful scrummaging performance coming off the bench in the RDS back in March 2013, with Ulster just about holding onto the win 18-22. He was brilliant in protecting Ulster in those closing minutes as Leinster mounted massive scrum pressure only to ultimately fall short.

Backline attack

The Ulster scrum has always been hugely important to their backline attack; Craig Gilroy's famous European Cup try against Munster came off a right field scrum with blind side winger running open. Ditto Connacht's scrum which has had variety in abundance, Bundee Aki sporadically at number eight focusing the opposition backrow defence in a nod to the Connacht front five scrum platform of Finlay Bealham at tighthead and loosehead Buckley, who certainly perform around the park. Many won't even know who he is, but Ulster's Callum Black has asked great tightheads, not just Porter but even Mike Ross, many questions.

So what were the conditions Carbery insisted on in this week's infamous coffee break with Joe Schmidt?

But because both Ulster and Connacht are struggling, players like Black and Buckley are highly unlikely to gain international recognition where many players of “lesser” pedigree have made the jump on the back of successful provincial teams. So for these two success may be the professional pride of scrumming down against Lions and internationals and teaching them a few lessons.

This is why players like Carbery, in the unbelievable Leinster environment, may be nervous of moving. Dublin’s a nice place to live, and its rugby is off the charts. There’s quite a risk in moving – personally and professionally. So what were the conditions Carbery insisted on in this week’s infamous coffee break with Joe Schmidt? Risk v reward. As the new Ulster quarterback, what added forward beef has Carbery secured from Schmidt to give him the platform akin to Leinster?

Beating Edinburgh

Finally, what is success for Munster this season – beating Edinburgh? A better standard of player produced by school and club? Edinburgh thrashed the Scarlets recently but the Welsh were resting 13 players. I do fancy Munster but in Blair Kinghorn, Edinburgh have a worthy watch at fullback. At 6ft 5in and 95kg he has a lanky languid physique akin to my Old Crescent team-mate Paul McDonogh and has a similar array of skills that will impact both team's tactics.

Because of this physique he looks slower, but he is quick and with a big, long arm fend, and his pathological need to pass the ball, Edinburgh's hungry support will be well rewarded. Kinghorn also has a monster boot where he can fire a wiper well over 50 metres. He's still only 21, and where these instincts are far from complete, pressure will impact errors – a Scottish trait? Remember, with only 15 per cent more players than Scotland, Ireland have five extremely "successful" teams. How many do Scotland have?

As for measuring success, It’s a question I continually ask myself pitch-side watching the Old Crescent Under-18s!