The Celtic Cup as a single entity tournament is not going to suffice in providing the desired game time as envisaged by the IRFU for some players in the four provincial professional squads. The broad focal point in personnel terms was to prioritise selecting players on academy and development contracts.
The competition involves collaboration between the Irish and Welsh Rugby unions featuring A sides from the four Irish provinces and their counterparts at the Scarlets, Ospreys, Cardiff and Dragons franchises in Wales. It serves to replace the British & Irish Cup that ceased to be at the end of last season.
The teams are evenly divided into two pools, Irish in one, Welsh in the other, playing four matches against the teams in the other pool and a further two against sides in their group. The top team in each pool will square off in the final. It guarantees six matches minimum, a seventh for the finalists, and an Ireland-Wales clash in the decider.
The IRFU's performance director David Nucifora explained the premise behind the tournament from an Irish perspective. "The Celtic Cup will bring significant value to the development of our emerging professional players, referees and coaches and support staff. It will challenge them to perform and manage themselves within a professional competition structure throughout a week-to-week campaign similar to the Guinness Pro14."
Fair enough. However a knock-on effect from the ongoing difference of opinion between the union and the All Ireland League clubs in relation to the future of the domestic tournament means that a tranche of contracted players in the provinces may see a modest amount of game time this season. The union wanted to change a rule that would permit clubs in Divisions 1A and 1B to play up to eight contracted professionals in a match, split evenly between backs and forwards.
The clubs railed against the notion, primarily citing health and safety concerns, and agitated for the number to remain at its current limit of four. Six was mooted as a compromise but there has been no agreement as of yet between the parties, with elite divisions in the league starting early next month.
The final round of matches in the pool stage of the Celtic Cup takes place on the weekend of October 12-14th with as of yet no date for the final, the weekend after the start of games in Division 1A and 1B. So for players who are fourth and fifth choice in the pecking order on a roster in a province that don’t get regular game time at club level, then access to a competitive environment will be limited, predicated on injuries to a significant degree.
As an example Leinster used 55 players last season but several would have made less than a handful of appearances in a blue shirt. Joey Carbery is a poster boy for the pathway from club to professional rugby prominence.
The IRFU is currently looking at a number of options to ensure that the players in question across the four provinces are given access to some meaningful matches. Some may be rescued by an involvement in the nationals Sevens programme but that’s in something of a competitive lull until November and in real terms represents a tiny minority.
The easiest if not necessarily the best option is to introduce several additional rounds of interprovincial A fixtures or look across the Irish Sea after Christmas to establish if there are some mutually acceptable windows to play matches against A teams of Premiership clubs. The union has to find a vehicle especially if the clubs in Divisions 1A and 1B are unwilling to budge in the numbers’ game.
In examining last weekend's opening round of Celtic Cup fixtures just under 49 per cent (38) of the 78 contracted players in the four provincial academies were on duty when Leinster beat Ulster and Munster got the better of Connacht. Leinster had 12 of 19 academy players in action in the match day 23, Munster 11 (20), Connacht eight (20) and Ulster seven (19).
There was a smattering of senior players involved, an example of which would be Tom Daly (Leinster), Ross Molony (Leinster), James Hart (Munster), Darren O'Shea (Munster), Tom McCartney (Connacht), Peter Robb (Connacht), Chris Henry (Ulster) and Rodney Ah You (Ulster) to highlight a couple from each province.
Clubs that boast significant academy/development contracted players are faced with a particular problem in accommodating all even on a rotation basis without diluting the cohesiveness of the group while those with more modest resources might be keen to retain the existing cap. Whatever the upshot, the biggest loser is a group of players who through no fault of their own face a short term future, long on training but short on matches.