Afficionados of American Football will be familiar with the NFL Draft. Each year in April, the best players from college are distributed amongst the 32 NFL teams in a manner designed to maximize competitiveness in the league: thus the team with the worst record gets the first choice in the first draft, and the team who won the last Super Bowl gets the thirty-second choice. It runs over seven rounds, so 224 players are selected. The last player selected is cruelly titled ‘Mr Irrelevant’, but funnily enough, that’s totally irrelevant to this article.
There’s a load of horse trading involved: for example, if you have the sixteenth pick and are looking out for a specific player but think that one of the teams ahead of you might pick him, you can offer them some form of compensation to swap places. You might give them your second round pick this year, and a third round pick the next year. It’s a really interesting couple of days, and acts pretty well to maintain parity in the league.
However, some people can get very muddled when looking to apply the idea to Irish rugby. It comes up on an annual basis at this stage amongst fans in clubhouses, on forums/fora and in boozers, especially so now that the provincial academies are all set up and running relatively smoothly.
There’s no doubt that some provinces are particularly well-stocked in certain areas, with the result that talented young players aren’t afforded all the game time that they want or that might see them quickly progress to be viable candidates for the national team.
However, the enormous difference between the NCAA colleges and the provincial academies [solely in terms of producing young sports men for a draft situation, because there are no end of differences in the grander scheme of things] is that the colleges are not in the slightest way tied to the professional franchises in their area. Graduates from The U [the University of Miami] aren’t groomed to play for the Miami Dolphins – most of them don’t really give a shit where they go, in fact, as long as they get paid. PAY DE MAN etc.
On the other hand, the provincial academies are not just linked to their respective provinces, they’re a function of their respective provinces. The Leinster Academy’s job is primarily concerned with the success of Leinster rugby, and secondarily Irish rugby. At Academy level, the two go hand-in-hand … you’re dealing exclusively with players who will go on to be available for selection for the national teams, but the truth is that the majority of them won’t be actually selected.
Most proponents of a draft system have a very fuzzy idea of how it would work. They know the outcome they’d like to see – some other academy’s best players in their own set-up, or, if they’re more altruistic [or less honest!] some underused young players getting game time in another province – but they don’t work backwards to navigate the steps of how that can be achieved.
Would players go into the existing provisional academies and then be available for the proposed draft at the end of three years [the lifespan of the academy contract]?
What if the head coach decides he likes the look of them after the first year and signs them to a full contract? Or, in another scenario, what if there is an injury crisis in the senior ranks of that province and the academy player gets the guts of a season of game time and becomes an integral part of the team and then gets fully contracted?
Surely then the best players are already signed up to whichever club’s academy they entered, and it is only the more average players who are available for selection in the proposed draft.
The bigger clubs like Leinster and Munster have an awful lot more money floating around than Connacht and, to a lesser extent, Ulster. They can afford to sign up all the promising young players in their academy, because they have the cash to do so.
For example, there’s a gap in squad size of 10 players [two thirds of a team!] between Connacht and Munster. Munster have, in the most basic sense, earned the right to have a bigger squad – they can pay more players, because they get bigger gates, sell more jerseys, have a far wider international appeal etc.
However, stockpiling players always seems alright when it’s your own province, but never satisfactory when it’s somebody else’s young talent that you have your beady eyes on!
Take Ian Nagle, the highly-rated 23-year old Munster lock, as an example. Nagle was a star performer against the visiting Australians this time last year for Munster, and went on to get nine starts for his province and win selection for the Irish Wolfhounds. He was attracting significant attention from Northampton [and doubtless amongst other clubs as well] and Munster announced mid-season that they had signed him to a two-year contract. They nominated him to join their HEC squad two days after they lost to Toulon in January, a result that put them out of contention for a quarter-final place, and then didn’t pick him in the match-day squad for the dead rubber against London Irish.
Since signing that contract eleven months ago, he has started four competitive games for Munster out of a possible twenty-four; two of them against Italian teams. Four starts from a possible twenty-four. Sorry, I forgot his one appearance off the bench on top of that.
This season, he’s got 21 minutes off the bench against the Ospreys and 19 minutes against Edinburgh – that’s the sum of his Munster season to date: two appearances off the bench in the Pro 12. Dave Foley [2 starts + 2 subs], Billy Holland [4 starts + 1 sub] and Mick O’Driscoll [6 starts] are all ahead of him in the pecking order, and that’s before you get anywhere near Irish internationals O’Connell, O’Callaghan and Ryan.
So Nagle is seventh choice second row in Munster. If Micko retires [not starting a rumor, the Mole has heard nothing of the sort] and Nagle forces himself ahead of Holland and Foley, which is entirely plausible, it still leaves him fourth choice lock, i.e. not even on the bench.
Would any Munster fans be happy with him leaving the province? I doubt it. However, he’d stand a better chance of getting game time in almost every other club in Europe. He’s a serious talent, and there are few teams that can boast four international second rows, especially when you consider that all four of O’Connell, O’Callaghan, O’Driscoll and Ryan have started for Ireland in the last twelve months.
Standardised Squad Sizes
It’s possible to take another angle on the argument of under-used players and positions of weakness in the Irish national squad using another idea borrowed from the NFL. What if there was a standard squad size in the Pro 12?
All the unions involved have central contracting, so there’s a shared sentiment regarding progression of national players rather than a win-at-all-costs attitude that could see the importation of a rake of SH ringers. If we take the Irish provinces as an example:
Leinster have 41 contracted players, including 5 NIQs [Nacewa, van der Merwe, Sykes, Berquist, White] and project player Strauss;
Munster have 48 contracted players, including 5 NIQs [du Preez, Botha, Chambers, Mafi, Howlett] and project player Borlase;
Ulster have 39 contracted players, including 6 NIQs [Afoa, Muller, Wannenburg, Pienaar, Danielli, Terblanche/Payne] – as far as I know, Adam D’Arcy is Irish qualified already, but it doesn’t quite explain how they have 6 NIQs!
Connacht have 38 contracted players [with the recent signing of Kyle Tonetti] including a number of guys who either aren’t yet Irish qualified or will never be available to the Irish selectors: Ray Ofisa, Dylan Rodgers, Etienne Reynecke, George Nauopo, Fetu’u Vainikolo, Henry Fa’afili, Miah Nikora, and project player Rodney Ah You.
What if there was a squad limit of 40 senior contracted players: 35 Irish qualified players, 4 NIQs + 1 Project Player. That would [in theory, if not in practice] level the playing field. The more commercially successful provinces could afford to pay their NIQs more, and thus get a better quality player, but it would both cut down the stockpiling of under-used players and provide more opportunities to Irish players.