With the 2016/17 European Champions Cup well and truly underway, Irish rugby appears to be continuing its renaissance.
Key to this resurgence has been the enforcement of several policies by the Irish Rugby Football Union. Some have been met with speculation; one policy in particular has created debate amongst experts and fans alike.
The player management policy which monitors the playing time of Ireland’s contracted players has at times left Irish rugby fans questioning whether it will negatively impact the success of the provinces.
Professional players are now all centrally contracted to the IRFU and given the influence of national coach Joe Schmidt and performance director David Nucifora, there is a debate that the performance of the national side is clearly taking priority over provincial interests.
How this will affect the provinces’ title aspirations in the future is an intriguing one.
The availability of front line players for both European and PRO12 action has been key to any success for the Irish provinces in the past. Whilst the rotation policy has been in place for a number of seasons, the influence of this policy now sees players’ game-time being monitored to the minute.
This was clear for all to see when Leinster’s talisman Johnny Sexton was pulled at half-time in his side’s crunch match away to Montpellier earlier this season. Whilst the player was clearly unhappy about being withdrawn, his injury profile and importance to the national side clearly influenced the decision of head coach Leo Cullen to protect his best player.
Moments like these, and the obviously weakened Leinster side that travelled to Thomond Park for the recent derby with rivals Munster, have had Irish supporters up in arms. Whilst the fans disappointment is understandable, key to this rotation policy has been the player’s welfare, which is crucial to not only the long-term success of the national side but also to the provinces too.
A player rotation policy is not unique to Ireland, and in the case of New Zealand’s system for resting top players the results of not only the All Blacks but also the country’s Super Rugby sides speak for themselves.
That outcome should be enough to show disgruntled Irish supporters the benefits of such a policy.
With good performances, thus far this season, the by-products of rotation go further than ensuring the fitness of frontline players. All four provinces operate successful academy structures, and the additional game time for up-and-coming players has seen the depth of the provincial squads grow, negating the effect of injuries to top players.
An obvious recent example of this added strength in depth has been the emergence of Leinster fly-halves Joey Carbery and Ross Bryne. Sexton’s continued struggles with hamstring injuries has paved the way for the former U20 stars, who have both benefitted from more minutes out on the field in Sexton’s absence.
Munster’s recent outing against Racing 92 is another example of increasing squad depth. Last weekend Rassie Erasmus named international quality players in Dave Kilycoyne, Keith Earls and Francis Saili all on the bench for a must-win clash.
Last season many of the southern provinces woes were directly linked to the lack of player quality in their ranks, whereas this season has seen players such as Rory Scannell, Andrew Conway and Darren Sweetnam make the step up to the plate. And the luxury of having players of this quality on the bench will undoubtedly boost Munster’s chances against the big sides in Europe.
Naturally the draw of big money contracts in France and England, such as the one former Leinster fly-half Ian Madigan has received at Bordeaux-Bègles, is almost certain to draw away Irish eligible players in the future, but the key draw card in the IRFU’s favour is the potential for an extended career which in turn may be prove to be more beneficial from both a financial and playing perspective than what may be a shorter playing career in the French and English leagues.
Factor in the benefits for Irish players, the potential for a better playing schedule and a greater chance of avoiding late career injuries, and that combination may sway the decisions of international stars to sign with an Irish side as opposed to overseas.
The level of influence from the IRFU over the provinces is unlikely to change in the foreseeable future, and the appearance of established stars throughout the regular season may become less and less.
But, while this may disappoint several supporters, the added attention to player welfare and squad development should see the provinces excel and once again challenge for European titles.