The Irish Rugby Football Union is to the forefront of Irish sport. It is a respected Union and is held in the highest regard by followers of Irish rugby. It is praised for its work in keeping homegrown talent in this country and developing them within the four provinces. The success of the Irish national team is also testimony to how well this organisation is run. But, is it really a success or is it a team underachieving due to the IRFU and certain structures in place? Is the IRFU holding back its national side due to team selection and calling shots outside of the Head Coach’s control? Is Andy Farrell a yes man to the IRFU and selecting players irrespective of club form due to their provincial side and is there a reason that certain positions hold a certain provincial trend to them? These are million-dollar questions which hopefully can be revealed as with our club status the Irish national side, in my opinion, is seriously underachieving.
When in charge Joe Schmidt made the call to only select players based within the four provinces to represent the national side. This is the same format used in All Black selection for the New Zealand national side. New Zealand is one of the greater powers of world rugby both on a national and club scene. However, based on the pick of players and the talent at their disposal this is a format that works for New Zealand and cracks became apparent when Jonathan Sexton was selected as starting out half despite moving to France and playing his club rugby with Racing 92. Sexton also played under Schmidt in a successful Leinster side and the pair knew each other well. However, with players like Ian Madigan playing out of his skin, Sexton was still the number one choice at 10. Was this a Joe Schmidt decision, given it was his idea to implement the rule or was it the IRFU’s decision in order to keep the poster boy of Irish rugby firmly in the scene. Yes, Sexton was a world-class player without a doubt. He is a former world player of the year, a Grand Slam, Triple Crown, Six Nations, Pro14 and Heineken Cup winner but his form has dipped considerably through injuries and with both Ross Byrne and Jack Carty both playing such consistent rugby, in the loose and off the kicking, it is very hard to see Sexton being justified as Irelands starting out half at this moment in time. This is a decision that in my opinion comes straight from the IRFU due to Sexton’s big-money contract with Leinster forcing not only Joe Schmidt but now Andy Farrell to persist with the out of form fly-half for commercial and financial reasons.
Prior to this rule being introduced players such as Tommy Bowe (Ospreys), Geordan Murphy (Leicester Tigers) and Keith Wood (Harlequins) were stalwarts for the Irish national side. Bowe himself is in the all-time Top 10 leading try scorers in Six Nations history, Wood was classed by many as the greatest hooker to ever play for Ireland and Murphy held a weapon he was rarely if ever allowed used at international level, the long-range drop goal. These players hold an impressive 199 International caps and 12 British and Irish Lions caps between them. In this era of selection surely these players could not be overlooked?? Then there’s Donnacadh Ryan. A man with over 150 Munster appearances and 47 International caps brushed aside after moving to Racing 92. Ryan, at that time, was Ireland’s best second-row performer bar none. His performance in Chicago against the All Blacks was nothing short of remarkable. Yet, after his move, Schmidt, or more likely the IRFU, wanted men under their rule earning their money. Players like Iain Henderson, who calls lineouts for statistically the weakest lineout of the provinces, and Devin Toner, used for lineouts but was unable to tackle, carry or clear-out and was targeted aerially by Toulouse in last years Heineken Cup semi-final were the starting locks.
This trend remains today with Henderson being persisted with despite some very below-average performances with Ulster and the aforementioned disastrous lineout that they have. Indeed it’s not just this season. Rory Best captained Ireland in the last World Cup. A Grand Slam-winning captain with an impressive CV. However, Rory Best had a spell mid captaincy where he was not part of a successful winning club side for over 12 months with both Ulster and the Lions in their warm-up matches. Despite this, he was persisted with. A veteran, a stalwart but being kept out of his club side by Rob Herring who was then Ireland’s in-form hooker. Herring could not make the Irish squad. He was behind the likes of Best, along with Niall Scannell of Munster and also Sean Cronin of Leinster. However, Best has retired and low and behold despite not playing well at club level the go-to man now seems to be Herring. Hooker of the weakest lineout of the 4 provinces as they have lost 28% of lineouts on their own throw, the only province to be below 75% success rate. That is a near staggering 3 out of every 10 lineouts lost on your own through which is borderline disastrous at any level nevermind professional.
This is a trend that can be viewed not just a hooker but also on the wing. Tommy Bowe returned to Ulster and retired he was then replaced by Andrew Trimble, a sub-average club player at best, and now we have Jacob Stockdale, a one-trick pony with the defensive attributes of Toner and the defensiveng of Simon Zebo thrown into one. No disrespect to either but Toner was so inept in a tackle he continuously gave up ground to his opposite number, and Zebo was caught out for many tries down his flank due to his lack of defensive qualities. Stockdale burst onto the scene with his tryscoring abilities, a burst of pace and his over the top chips. But he has not progressed and has regressed greatly the past year and a half and has cost Ireland and indeed Ulster with his showings. He cost Ulster a chance at a Heineken Cup Final against Saracens when he attempted what can only be described as a Chris Ashton swallow dive but looked like he was shot mid-air and knocked the ball forward. This hit his confidence hard and it is clear to see he is not the same player and should be left to focus on his club game, especially with talented players such as Adam Byrne (Leinster) and Shane Daly (Munster) both performing well without recognition. I am not singling out Ulster players either as I feel Kieran Treadwell, Nick Timoney and a fully fit Craig Gilroy should be well within the fold. I also believe in Aaron Sexton they have one of the hottest young prodigies in the Irish game if nurtured correctly and brought through the ranks in the correct manner.
For anyone thinking of bias that I have not singled out any Connacht or Munster players, I would like to address that now. Conor Murray is perhaps the only place to start. Technically gifted knows the rule book better than Jerome Garces, the brain of Albert Einstein with the will to win of Michael Jordan but how he has suffered in recent times. I feel this originally came to the fore on cold blustery Saturday evening in Thomond Park. Murray started taking this step before passing which like Ben Youngs in the World Cup led to serious defensive pressure. Munster played excellently and Billy Holland, in particular, had the game of his life. Munster saw out the game but one thing was noticeable. Murray was replaced by Alby Mathewson who brought calm to the defence, a quicker pass out of the ruck and a better structure. I firmly believe if Ireland is to go forward there is only 1 man capable of wearing 9 and that is John Cooney of Ulster with Caolan Blade of Connacht as back up. Also with Munster CJ Stander, like Murray has lost all form yet, like England, if your eligible and sing the national anthem you seem to be selected despite a poor run of form at club and indeed nation. This is a trait shared with Bundee Aki. A player with a fancy name that is more suited by a Samoan jersey as his self-discipline is more like Donald Trumps than that of an International centre as was proven in the World Cup and indeed prior. Quin Roux is another name that springs to mind. A big, powerful, aggressive, second-row forward from South Africa who was always outshone by Connacht second-row partner Ultan Dillane at club level but was constantly selected ahead of Dillane for reasons that are quite baffling. Joe Schmidt or someone within the IRFU must have been hammered when awarding Roux a starting berth despite dozens of lacklustre performances. However, when Roux was playing outstandingly well he was never considered despite still being eligible. It seems to me that the worse you play and perform the more guaranteed of an Irish jersey you are.
It is instances like the above that shows me that the IRFU have instated a man in Andy Farrell that will meet their needs as Joe Schmidt did. An offloading game is excellent and is not something easily coached which can lead to errors. However, to play this game you need confident in form players which is what we do not have. We seem to have a team put together by the IRFU that is so far away from club form it is tearing the national side apart. I for one do not rate Eddie Jones as a coach. He is a poor tactician but he attends on average 4 games a week in the Premiership to find new and improving talent and Warren Gatland was the same when in charge of Wales. Indeed Gatland’s call to bring Kyle Sinckler, an uncapped tight head forward to the Lions tour of New Zealand spoke volumes. We, on the other hand, have a side where the entire world knows our starting 15 before it is announced. It is damaging this great sport in our country and leading to our national side being shown up on so many levels.
My final point is Warren Gatland. The greatest coach in world rugby. His success with a mediocre Welsh side was nothing short of phenomenal. Gatland held the Irish post around the turn of the century and walked. It is now I firmly believe it was the IRFU’s way or the highway instead of the other way around and due to the team selection crisis, I firmly believe this is the case.
There is clear evidence for all to see that IRFU hold sway over many decisions regarding the Irish team. I firmly believe that the central contract situation is a major issue as it practically grants an automatic spot to players irrespective of their form. Rory Best was the prime example of this from that year winless year with Ulster and it is still the case to this very day. We are not New Zealand. We don’t possess the luxury of being able to bring in youngsters from neighbouring islands such as Fiji in order to build our team. New Zealanders are practically born with a rugby ball at their feet and have an extremely competitive club competition in Super Rugby and this season Super Rugby Aotearoa. We have 4 provinces which is a max of 60 players starting every week, not all of whom are Irish or eligible for Ireland. This, in my opinion, holds back youngsters, especially those who dream of donning the green jersey. Not because of their ability but because of the fact, Leinster and Munster in particular, hold extremely strong depth to their squads and have the luxury of rotating their sides on a continuous basis. This leads to players not getting as much game time as they or probably their coaches would like but because of the IRFU situation they will not be selected for Ireland if they leave for regular competitive game time. I think this is an atrocious rule and needs to be altered for the good of our international side. If players are good enough to take the Top14 or Gallagher Premiership by storm they should not be punished by being isolated from the international setup as if they are good enough for the club sides in these leagues they are more than capable of making an impact for the Irish national side. As eluded to earlier with players such as Keith Wood with Harlequins, he would have been irreplaceable as the next in line would have been a mediocre Shane Byrne of Leinster had he not been selected. Johnny Sexton was one exception to the rule and while he was outstanding over that period for Ireland and indeed Racing it was incredibly unfair on Ian Madigan who had a stellar season at Leinster but was still overlooked. This showed a mountain of favouritism as Sexton was and still is the poster boy of Irish rugby. Joe Schmidt broke, or maybe was forced to break, his own ruling to accommodate Sexton. Our national side is a sideways shuffle instead of an upward curve on the highest stage as proven by our inability to go beyond the quarter-final of a World Cup despite playing the weakest All Black side in history we couldn’t get the job done when it mattered most. Granted we beat them twice but we beat a side in decline, a side beaten by Australia, torn to shreds on more than one occasion by South Africa and a side that needed a horrendous TMO decision to avoid defeat in Twickenham. In my opinion, it is as clear as broad daylight that if the IRFU don’t wake up and realise the big issue and failing within the Irish national side then unfortunately on the biggest stage of them all Ireland will forever be the bridesmaid and never the bride.