Poor old Clint Newland has recently been repeatedly brought up as a byword for the sort of useless NIQ players that the selfish old provinces foist on the IRFU.
The particular circumstances surrounding his short-term contract last season sketch out just some of the issues that the provinces can face any given year when it comes to filling specific positions. These problems might sound outlandish or far-fetched if they were put together as a worst-case scenario in a meeting room, and yet some strange, strange things happen over the course of a rugby season.
It’s a brutal, concussive sport at professional level, and injuries are a weekly issue. Munster had a particularly ugly year in 2011 with injuries [Felix Jones, David Wallace and Jerry Flannery all seriously injured on Irish duty; Barry Murphy and Ian Dowling having to retire in their 20s; Doug Howlett tearing his Achilles tendon etc.], but there’s no doubt that any head coach could tell you horror stories.
At the start of the 2010-11 season, Leinster’s contracted tightheads were Stan Wright [31, NIQ], Mike Ross  and Ronnie McCormack [33, capable of playing both sides]; enormous nipper Stuart Maguire  was in the academy as a tighthead, as was another 20 year old, Jack O’Connell. So far, so idyllic.
The problems started when Stan Wright, who had had the season of his life in 09-10, ruptured his Achilles tendon in one of Leinster’s pre-season friendlies. That immediately promoted Mike Ross to unquestioned first-choice tighthead [he would otherwise have shared time with Wright in the same manner that Cian Healy shared time with Heinke van der Merwe that season, which – if you believe some reporters – would have meant Ireland going into RWC11 with Tony Buckley at tighthead.]
With Wright out of action for more than six months, the worries about Ronnie McCormack’s health became more acute. He was now the second-choice tighthead, with neither Maguire nor O’Connell having played a minute of professional rugby. With ML match-day squads expanded to 23 players for the first time, he’d be expected to be a viable contender week-in, week-out, not a break-glass-in-case-of-emergencyroleplayer. There were serious question marks about his ability to perform in this role, as his time on the physio’s table began to outweigh his time on the training park.
With the season days from kicking off, Leinster were able to secure the services of Ben Prescott from Nottingham, a Libyan-born journeyman – and a player whom they would incidentally be able to move on to eventual HEC final opponents Northampton in December 2010 when Euan Murray’s abrupt departure left the Saints short at tighthead. At this extremely late stage of pre-season – with the Top14 already having started, and both the Aviva Premiership and Magner’s League days away from kick-off – there simply were no quality props left waiting by the phone like a jilted 50s teenager.
Prescott didn’t have a great pre-season behind him, having only moved from Rotterham to Nottingham in May; it was certainly nothing comparable to Leinster’s first-rate strength and conditioning regime, and as a result he struggled badly when introduced. It wasn’t really his fault. There was simply too much ground to make up, and he had to move to a new country, get set up in a new place to live, meet a whole squad for the first time and tog out in the Magner’s League within five or six days of getting the job – a huge ask.
To complicate matters, Mike Ross was suffering from a dicky hamstring at the time, which ensured that he missed the preseason games and the first game of the season. Before the season had even begun, Leinster were now down to their third choice loosehead in Ronnie McCormack.
A couple of days after Prescott’s arrival, Leinster moved to contract Simon Shawe [not the hugging variety] from Ballymena, a dental technician who had once come off the bench for a single minute of rugby for Ulster waaaay back in September 2003.
Simon Shawe was about the most competent non-contracted prop plying his trade in the AIL: while it’s better than being the least competent, it’s not exactly a ringing endorsement for the professional game. That’s not to knock Simon Shawe unduly: he’s a talented, diligent amateur who works a difficult job and performs at a high level in a sport to which he can only give his spare time. Just like you wouldn’t want a part-time dentist having a go at your root canal, you wouldn’t be too keen about a part-time prop taking on the likes of Gethin Jenkins, Wian du Preez, Jean-Baptiste Poux, Tomas Domingo etc.
So, going in to the first competitive game of the season, Leinster’s depth chart at tighthead looked like this:
- Ronnie McCormack [33, ML backup standard]
- Ben Prescott [32, RFU championship standard]
- Simon Shawe [31, AIL standard]
This is a team that was supposed to be challenging on two fronts for silverware, and yet through unavoidable injury weren’t capable of fielding even one ML quality tighthead on the first day of the season. Outlook: bleak.
Luckily he wasn’t, but it went some way to showing the folly of the “gametime” theory. Dropping players into a standard for which they’re not ready isn’t just bad for the team [which it unarguably is], but it can be genuinely dangerous. It’s easy enough to forget that letting players ‘sink or swim’ means that they can sink … and sometimes with disastrous consequences.
b] merely a lack of understanding of the forces involved in professional rugby.
In the event, after some diligent back room work from the Leinster staff, a number of candidates were brought to the IRFU as suitable short term solutions. No province can go off and sign a player, no manner how short term, without the say so of the IRFU. Newland mightn’t have been an outstanding player, but he had reasonable credentials: a cap for the New Zealand Maori, 34 Super 14 games for the Highlanders in the three years preceding his arrival in Leinster, and over 100 games for Hawke’s Bay. Now, clearly Leinster are a significant step up from the Highlanders, but it’s a decent enough resume.
There are two final points to hit on: firstly, you won’t find many Leinster fans complaining about the signing of Newland, certainly not in the same way that many Munster fans would consider Nick Williams or Sam Tuitupou a dud. He was brought in on extremely short notice and tried hard, and with a decade of professional rugby in New Zealand behind him, he was a much better option than Simon Shawe.
Secondly, who was he holding back? Stuart Maguire? The big lad has only played a half-hour of rugby for Connacht this season, which points to the fact that y’know, he mightn’t have been ready for Heineken Cup rugby for Leinster last season.
The Mole isn’t giving up on Maguire by any means, but the large majority of props are slow burners who need to spend a huge amount of their early career both in the weight-room and under the instruction of good specialist coaches before they can survive a professional scrum, nevermind last the entire game!