“One wonders how Connacht have viewed the progress of Seán Cronin with Leinster in the Heineken Cup, and the contributions of Keatley, the try-scoring Fionn Carr and Jamie Hagan to the weekend victories of Munster and Leinster, as they slipped to their seventh successive defeat. If the strong are to continue plucking selectively from Connacht, then there has to be more traffic going the other way too.”*
This is quite a tired drum that Thornley is beating.
I’m sure one wonders how Leinster look at the progress of Nathan Hines [Clermont], Niall Morris [Leicester], Stan Wright [Stade Francais] and Felix Jones [Munster].
Likewise, I’d say Munster fans look at Irish internationals like Eoin Reddan and Mike Ross [both Leinster] or Exeter captain Tom Hayes and think to themselves that they’d have done well to try and hold on to them.
Players come and go in the professional game. It’s the nature of the job; it’s the nature of any job. Stan Wright isn’t any different to Jamie Hagan, in that regard. Wright arrived in Leinster as an untrumpeted heffalump of a prop from the Cook Islands and was widely pilloried as an overweight chump in the middle of the 2006-07 season; by the 2009-10 season he was one of the highest-paid players in Leinster and probably the best all-round prop in the country – a great carrier, capable of playing both sides of the scrum to Heineken Cup level and a much-loved figure amongst the RDS ‘Ultras’.
Leinster signed Mike Ross from Harlequins to a healthy deal [a deal not subsidized by the IRFU, incidentally, who didn’t rate him as an international calibre prop], and transformed him into one of the best tight heads in Europe.
Neither of these players were born in Leinster or schooled in the Leinster Academy. They were contracted as professionals … and one has stayed with the club, while the other has left. Both are currently playing high-quality rugby.
Carr, Cronin, Hagan and Keatley aren’t contracted to Connacht. They’re not Connacht-born men, nor were they brought into the Connacht academy as nippers to learn the ropes of the professional game. They’re young players from different parts of the country who went to play for the western province, fulfilled their contracts, and then left when they were offered other contracts.
Should they have stayed? If they wanted to, of course they should have. The Mole is sure that Connacht would have been absolutely delighted to extend their contracts; all four of them were significant contributors to the admittedly limited success Connacht enjoyed when they were part of the club.
If they didn’t want to stay, why should they? Should young players feel that the voyage out west is a one-way ticket, that once you sign up with Connacht you’re there for life? That scenario would very, very likely see fewer young Irish players try their luck out west. Like it or not, these players have their ambitions, and many probably see Connacht as a way to launch [or relaunch] careers that have somewhat sputtered at take-off.
What about the much-advertised success story of Jerry Flannery, the Irish and Lions hooker who left Limerick to play for Connacht for two seasons [2001-2003]? Flannery came back to Munster at the start of the 03-04 season and sat on the bench behind Frankie Sheahan for two years until the Cork Constitution man suffered a serious neck injury. He made one HEC appearance in those two seasons, and it was off the bench. His story is similar to that of Bernard Jackman; Berch arrived back from Connacht to Leinster to sit on the bench behind Brian Blaney for the 05-06 season. Neither made a massive impact in their first season back with their home province, and neither launched their international career from Connacht. Those tales have grown in the telling.
The Mole once again turns to his prime barometer, Ian Nagle of Munster. Nagle’s career progression [in the most basic sense of games played, although he is doubtless learning a great deal] is currently suffering from the presence of O’Connell, O’Callaghan, O’Driscoll, Ryan et al in Munster. In two years’ time, O’Callaghan’s Irish contract will have run its course and Micko will be a 35-year old fading force, but at the moment they’re clearly well ahead of him in the pecking order. As documented before in these pages, Nagle is currently about sixth or seventh choice second-row in Munster.
A two year stint in Connacht, where he’d likely be very much higher up the tree and see considerably more gametime, would seem like a good career move for him. However, would he move there if he had to stay there for his entire career, or was subject to the abuse [mild, veiled or otherwise] that has accompanied Hagan and Carr upon their return to their home province? Nah, he probably wouldn’t.
Mobility is important in the Irish game, because there are only four professional teams. It’s interesting to note the praise that Felix Jones’ move from Leinster to Munster has generally garnered in the Irish rugby media [‘brave’ is the word most often bandied around] and compare that to how Fionn Carr’s move from Connacht to Leinster has been portrayed.
Despite being an absolute try-scoring machine out west [34 tries in 73 appearances], Carr never got an international cap. In contrast, as soon as Felix Jones got a run of eight games for Munster – and not a single HEC game among them – he was brought into the Irish training squad for the World Cup.
Jamie Hagan’s move can be viewed in the same light. Declan Kidney was picking John Hayes as a 37-year old starter in the November 2010 internationals, despite Hagan getting putting together immense runs of starts at tight head for Connacht.
Gavin Duffy couldn’t buy a start for Ireland at fullback during the period when experienced Lions Robert Kearney and Geordan Murphy [and the aforementioned Jones] were out for an extended period with injury, despite the fact that he was pretty obviously the best No15 in the country.
That’s the other way of looking at these cross-province transfers: they were prompted by a lack of international recognition. While Sean Cronin was able to make his mark in the 2009-10 international season, he would have been familiar to Declan Kidney from the time he spent in the Munster Academy, which coincided with Kidney’s second spell at the club.
While Kidney was giving out soft caps to Ian Dowling and Denis Hurley in the 2009 summer tour of USA & Canada, Carr – the joint top try-scorer in the Magners League that year and a guy who scored more tries than the rest of his squad put together in the competition – was cooling his heels.
Jamie Hagan never got a hint of a chance at international level, despite the fact that pre-Ross, Ireland were in dire straights at scrum-time, with Munster behemoths Buckley and Hayes getting plowed left, right and centre.
* Paul O’Donohoe [scrum-half] and Stewart Maguire [tighthead] and well-travelled second-row Dave Gannon are the most recent players to have travelled west from Leinster. Irish U20s and Leinster youths player Mick Kearney was also offered a spot in the Connacht academy, and after stints with Harlequins and Sale respectively, Leinster academy graduates Davey Moore, [24, scrum-half] and Kyle Tonetti [24, centre] have returned to Irish rugby with the western province.
Three former Ulster players – Niall O’Connor [outhalf], TJ Anderson [backrow] and Mark McCrea [wing] moved south over the off-season … and Ulster didn’t pluck anyone, selectively or not, from Connacht.
As time progresses and the academies in all provinces iron out their teething problems, more and more young Irish players will enter the professional game and – hopefully – fewer and fewer of those who graduate from the academies will be lost to foreign leagues or to the game as a profession.