Now therefore ye are cursed, and there shall none of you be freed from being bondmen, and hewers of wood and drawers of water for the house of my God. – Joshua 9:23
JJ Hanrahan is one of the original Five Up so rumours of his eventual move to Northampton were of particular interest and encouraged me to refer to what we’d written about him. The sentence in the article that caught my eye was actually in a paragraph about Iain Henderson “Henderson’s progress suggests that one of the prerequisites of a top provincial coach is the willingness to give young players game time and the ability to maintain competitiveness while doing so.”
There then followed the assertion that “Joe Schmidt remains the model.” There wasn’t any back up to that opinion but its safe territory in recent years to refer to Schmidt as the paragon without expecting howls of outrage. But being a fact-loving kinda guy I was curious to see if it bore scrutiny, particularly as a number of the Mole’s associates had requested an article about Matt O’Connor; preferably one denouncing him as it would satisfy their prejudices. When asked for my thoughts on MOC my usual response at this stage is that his biggest problem is not being Joe Schmidt. What usually follows, if pushed, is surprise that he is willing to pick Darragh Fanning, a good AIL winger, ahead of Zane Kirchner, a Springbok with nearly 30 caps.
Fanning’s story has run its course for me, it should be more appealing than I now find it: hard working winger proves that the road less travelled can also lead to the Show and that players mature at different ages. Instead, whenever I see his name as selected I roll my eyes and mutter “there must be someone else worth having a look at”. However, that’s all a matter of opinion and this article isn’t about decrying individual players, it’s about the selection policy employed by coaches with regards to young players. O’Connor’s consistent preference for Fanning ahead of, for example, Sam Coghlan-Murray, Adam Byrne or Cian Kelleher suggests to me that O’Connor like tried and trusted rather than taking a chance. That’s a selection policy that works well in France where players can earn experience in Pro D2, or in England which has a large playing base. In Ireland, the Union (and Denis O’Brien) is footing the bill so players that aren’t likely to ever play for Ireland, generally NIQs, are less welcome when taking up a provincial spot.
The methodology applied in this exercise depends on age. If a player was less than 23 he counted as ‘young’, and if 33 or greater he counted as ‘old’. What came out of the analysis quite surprised me; in the first 5 league matches of the 2014/15 season, O’Connor didn’t pick one ‘young’ player while selecting five ‘old’ ones – Ross, Jennings, Reddan, Boss, D’Arcy. What surprised me even more was that in the last 7 league matches of 2013-14 he didn’t pick any youngsters, while a number of the more august members of the squad featured regularly – Ross, Cullen, Reddan, Boss, D’Arcy and O’Driscoll. [Hence forth we’ll dispense with scare-quoting the terms young and old.]
The two lines wheeled out in defence of Matt O’Connor are (1) he won the league in his first season and (2) a number of prominent individuals have left the club like Sexton, Nacewa and O’Driscoll and it’s extremely difficult/impossible to replace them. If looking to rebut both of those arguments one might add the rider “…with Joe Schmidt’s team” to the first and question how hard he has tried to develop replacements. Instead there have been quotes along the lines of what sort of player he can’t sign:
“There are a lot of blokes globally that would come to play for Leinster. But that’s not the reality. It is for no other reason except the Union say that you can’t have them.”
At this point the old chestnut of the trade off in the structure of professional Irish rugby comes to mind; do strong provinces mean a weak national team and vice versa? I contend strongly that they are not mutually exclusive and should be complementary. I do wonder about how a coach is incentivised, and how his job is defined in the interview process. I wouldn’t be surprised to see that a home league semi-final and a European Cup knock-out game are objectives for a provincial coach. I would be more surprised to learn that provincial set-ups in Ireland see themselves as stand-alone entities without a development role for the national team.
Admittedly O’Connor used young players earlier in the 2013/14 season, so I looked at who they were and were they making their starting debuts, i.e. could they be classified as “Matt O’Connor players”. The five who started early in the 2013-14 season were Marty Moore (on debut), Quinn Roux, Jordi Murphy, Brendan Macken and, to my amazement, Rhys Ruddock (who seems to be approaching veteran status at the tender age of 24!) That cabal remained intact until February 2014, by which stage Roux and Ruddock were no longer classified as ‘young’ under my methodology. Tadhg Furlong and Sam Coghlan-Murray both made starting debuts against Zebre when the Six Nations was being played (almost literally – Ireland triumphed 26-3 over Wales a day earlier, while Italy played France on the 9th February, the same day Leinster beat Zebre). A Thursday night fixture against Cardiff Blues saw Jack Conan rewarded with his starting debut two days before Ireland played England in Twickenham. Conan scored a try and was awarded Man of the Match but you have to wonder if he would have played were either Jamie Heaslip or Jordi Murphy available. As it was, both were involved with Ireland that weekend.
In summary, 4 players made their league debuts under O’Connor in 2013/14 – Moore (14 games that season), Furlong (3), Conan (1) and Coghlan-Murray (2). In all, there were 9 games in the 2013/14 league campaign (including playoffs) when O’Connor didn’t pick a single young player. The most selected was 4 in a single game, and the average was 1.6.
In 2014/15 Furlong (5) and Conan (6) still qualify as young players and have been afforded more opportunities. They have been joined by Josh van der Flier (1) and Brian Byrne (1), who each made their starting debut under O’Connor, for a total of six players in a season and a half. As 3 of those have only started 4 games between them, they have evidently yet to win their coach’s confidence. One other player has started for Leinster who is under 23 this season – Luke McGrath – but he wasn’t on debut, which means he isn’t an “O’Connor player” for the purposes of this exercise.
McGrath is a Schmidt man, having earned his start a few month after his 20th birthday against the Ospreys. But before reviewing Schmidt, let’s jump a bit further back on the basis that O’Connor is no Joe and see how he compares with Schmidt’s predecessor, Michael Cheika.
There’s a few things that strike you reviewing the 2005/06 season. One is that, come September 2015, it will be 10 years since Cheika’s first game which was played in a different Ireland. The second is that if you wind back just over another 10 years, specifically to the 25th August 1995, the game was still amateur as it was only on the following day that the IRB announced that all restrictions of payment to players would be officially removed and rugby went ‘open’. Some of what appeared a reasonable standard back then seems a bit quaint now and it can be argued that the 2005/06 season still qualifies as the nascent days of professional rugby in Ireland.
Professionalism took a while to catch on in Ireland and Irish rugby history in the modern era is best described in Brendan Fanning’s excellent book From There to Here which divides Irish rugby history into periods BL and AL – Before Lens and After Lens. Discussion of Lens brings the privilege of selection into focus when reviewing the perspective of a coach. Picking the team is the greatest level of influence and autonomy enjoyed by the coach or director of rugby, and the one where he is least compromised. The most influential selection of an Irish team that I can recall was made 2 matches after Lens. Chastened by conceding 50 points in Twickenham in the first game AL, Warren Gatland decided to clear the decks and breathe new life into the team. Shane Horgan, Ronan O’Gara, Peter Stringer, John Hayes and Simon Easterby were all handed their test debuts for the next match and would all go on to enjoy prestigious international careers, with 3 of them winning the Grand Slam 8 years later. That single team selection had a massive influence on Irish rugby and goes to show that Who Dares, Wins.
The game against Edinburgh on 6th November 2005, played in Donnybrook in front of 1,700 people, serves evidence of what Cheika inherited and what he helped build. The Leinster team was populated by a mix of players from the BL and AL eras. There was a ginger winger with a reasonable AIL pedigree, Brendan Burke, playing alongside a proven international with experience of multiple World Cups, Felipe Contepomi. Some things don’t change! Eric Miller, only just turned 30 and the best Irish schools player I ever saw, started that game at No. 8. Miller had been brilliant on the Lions tour in 1997 when, at the age of 21, he played in a test match and would have started the first test only for taking an over the counter cough syrup containing a banned substance. Des Dillon, also a prominent schoolboy No. 8 started in the second row while the team contained two NIEs (Will Green and Felipe Contepomi) and two NIQs (Ben Gissing and Christian Warner). It looks like a particularly good AIL team and it’s not hard to imagine that it was run along those lines but things were beginning to change.
A 19 year old Rob Kearney made the first of 13 league appearances in that first game, and was joined in the next match by the 21 year old Jamie Heaslip who started all but 2 of 20 league games in 2005/06. Eric Miller retired from representative rugby at the end of that season as Cheika sought to mould his own team. Ciaran Potts was still younger than 23 and had started under Kidney, while the only other young player to start a game that season was Johnny Hepworth. Yeah, me neither. The impression from Cheika’s first season was of a man not prone to dispersing his favours lightly and who held strong convictions.
Luke Fitzgerald was selected by Cheika for the opening game of the 2006/07 season just 5 days shy of his 19th birthday and started 10 games that season. Heaslip started every game that season and Kearney again broke into double figures. A beanpole-like Devin Toner, then just 20, was selected for 3 games that season while a cantankerous young outhalf called Jonny Sexton, 21 at the time, also started twice.
If a lot of these names are familiar, there are also others that require greater recollection and reinforce the impression of the main aspect of Cheika’s management style, his willingness to make decisions. Harry Vermaas started the first 4 games as a 22 year old hooker and was never seen again. Cillian Willis, at scrum half, and Matt D’Arcy, at centre, each also received 1 game and no more. Cheika had a good eye for talent and was willing to allow it some opportunity.
The 2006/07 season saw Trevor Hogan and Stephen Keogh move to Leinster from Munster and between them they made 33 starts in 20 games. Hogan, and to a lesser degree Toner, took the place of Southern Hemisphere journeymen Adam Byrnes and Bryce Williams. The transfer of players between provinces is less frequent than one would expect, but this example certainly made sense from Irish rugby’s perspective. These 2 points aren’t particularly notable when explaining the 2006/07 season but are important when considering how Irish provincial rugby develops. If one province (probably Leinster) has a plethora of young players that aren’t getting enough (or any) game time, then the IRFU must recommend that they move provinces. If players are to be imported they must be of a high standard e.g. Ollie le Roux, not journeymen like Bryce Williams. Irish rugby can produce that standard of player itself without having to import it.
Stan Wright arrived in 2006/07 in the sort of condition that made journeyman status an aspiration but improved notably and was a mainstay of the 2007/08 team. Hogan’s starts were limited by the return of Leo Cullen, while one of Leinster’s most influential signings, Ollie le Roux, also defined the Cheika era by adding a hard edge in 2007/08 to a team frequently lampooned as spineless.
Those who made their debuts in 2007/08 included Fergus McFadden (2 starts), Cian Healy (3) who played pro rugby in the front row at 20 years of age, Felix Jones (1) and Fionn Carr (1). Sexton, Fitzgerald and Kearney all qualified as ‘young’ during that season and made frequent appearances while Toner and Cillian Willis also featured on multiple occasions. Willis discusses his reasons for early retirement in this article from the Irish Examiner and Cheika seemed to like the look of him. He remains, in my recollection, one of the best pound-for-pound tacklers to play for the province.
Upon review, I categorise Cheika’s first season as a getting-to-know-you exercise and the second season as a development exercise in a blossoming relationship. In his third season the team had acquired the characteristics associated with “Cheika’s Leinster” and featured multiple young players in every single game bar the Connacht fixture in November when only Luke Fitzgerald started.
The 2008/09 season saw Leinster sign some heavy artillery as CJ van der Linde, Isa Nacewa and Rocky Elsom joined the club. There was a young player on the pitch from the beginning in every game that season, and it was only in the 2 Munster matches that there was a single “sprog”.
Sean O’Brien (8 starts) made his debut at 21 and was joined by Paul O’Donohoe (2), while Kyle Tonetti and Ian McKinley were run-ons against the Dragons on the final day of the season. McKinley was only 19 at the time and, due to his eye injury, is one of the great “what ifs” of Irish rugby over the last decade.
For the last 3 years of Cheika’s regime there were no Italian teams and only 2 Scottish teams, while playoffs were introduced to decide the league winner in 2009/10. The teams selected by Cheika in his final season, having won the Heineken Cup the previous year and negotiated himself his next job in charge of Stade Francais, were different from earlier years. On three occasions there were no young players while twice, against the Dragons and Glasgow, he gave youth its head and saw who kept theirs.
Dave Kearney (3 starts) made his debut at 20 and was one of those who played against the Dragons where he was joined by Ian McKinley (1), Rhys Ruddock (3) and Dom Ryan (3), Eoin O’Malley (4) and Neil Morris (1), the last 4 of whom were making their debuts together. Both back row debutants were 19 at the time. The precocious Andrew Conway (2) made his debut at 18 against Cardiff while Ciaran Ruddock, Paul Ryan, Michael Keating and Ian Madigan all made their sole start of the season against Glasgow.
In all, Cheika handed 26 men league debuts while he was in charge of the province over 5 seasons. A possible team selected from his youngsters on debut (Healy, Vermaas, TH; Toner, C. Ruddock; R Ruddock, O’Brien, Heaslip; Willis, Sexton; Fitzgerald, McFadden, O’Malley, D Kearney; R Kearney) features 5 test Lions and another tourist in Cian Healy. To add to this good return, you have internationals Devin Toner, Rhys Ruddock, Fergus McFadden and Dave Kearney. I said that Cheika’s Leinster bore a resemblance to a particularly good AIL team at the outset of his reign, but by the time he left, it had the makings of a decent international team. Only Heaslip, Rob Kearney, D’Arcy, O’Driscoll and Horgan would make the transition from Cheika’s first season to the first season after Cheika. The beneficiary of this harvest would be the genial dictator, Joe Schmidt.
Like his predecessor Cheika a season before, Schmidt did not pick any young players for the Easter trip to Munster. Nor did he pick any for the knock-out rounds of the league, judging the playoffs to be no country for young men. Other than those games, there were always young players picked, particularly during the Six Nations when Ireland came calling for Leinster’s front liners.
Dominic Ryan (13 league starts that season), Rhys Ruddock (10), Ian Madigan (6), Eoin O’Malley (16), Andrew Conway (5) and Dave Kearney (8) had all been selected by Cheika and it wasn’t until the Ulster game in December of the 2010/11 season that Jason Harris-Wright became the first young player to be given his debut by Schmidt. The 19 year old Brendan Macken followed him in February 2011 when he teamed up with school mate Andrew Conway in a very young back line. The second centre jersey alternated between Macken, Eamon Sheridan and Eoin O’Malley as Leinster sought a home grown solution to eventually replace Brian O’Driscoll. In the final regular season game of the campaign against Glasgow, loosehead prop Jack McGrath was given his first start of his Leinster career at 21 years of age.
The following season continued to bring success for Leinster and some of the similar hallmarks were evident in Schmidt’s selections. Neither game against Munster featured a young player, nor did the league final defeat against the Ospreys. Other than that pair of games, league selections provided players with an opportunity to develop and gain the experience necessary to push for national selection.
In 2011/12, 21 year old scrum half John Cooney started the first game against the Ospreys but did not reappear all season as Cillian Willis played the next 5 matches before the returning Isaac Boss and Eoin Reddan placed a lock on the number 9 jersey. Noel Reid got his first run as outhalf against Aironi in October 2011. Mark Flanagan got 2 runs at second row in the months before Brad Thorn’s arrival, as Collie O’Shea and Darren Hudson also got their first taste of first team action in the back line.
The main beneficiaries of Schmidt’s selection policy during the 11/12 season were Dave Kearney (18 league starts), Rhys Ruddock (13), Ian Madigan (12 starts before he turned 23), Dom Ryan (8) and Brendan Macken (6). Andrew Conway got 4 starts in his third season with the senior squad, while Jack McGrath got 3 in the year after making his debut.
The arrival of Quinn Roux (7 starts) as a project player for the beginning of 2012/13 allowed Schmidt to hand a debut to another young player, although Roux experienced a dreadful run of injuries in his first season. Ben Marshall joined him in the second game as Cooney (3), Reid (4), Macken (10) and Conway (14) all earned more experience. Jordi Murphy (6) joined his Blackrock classmates in October when he started against Cardiff. Darren Hudson and Jack O’Connell each picked up a single start in the 2012/13 season and would leave for Bristol at the end of season. As the spring of 2013 arrived Luke McGrath and Cathal Marsh each made their first team debuts at 20 years of age.
Schmidt gave 14 young players their debuts over 3 seasons, keeping in line with Cheika’s numbers of 26 over 5 years, for an average of 5 a season. Schmidt’s Debutants XV, or the closest version one can get of it, looks along these lines: J McGrath, Harris-Wright, TH; Roux, Flanagan; Marshall, OSF, Murphy; L McGrath, Marsh; Macken, Sheridan, O’Shea, Hudson; Reid.
Jack McGrath, Jordi Murphy and Noel Reid have been capped, although none of them are nailed on as starters at Leinster. Jason Harris-Wright and Quinn Roux are with Connacht. Eamon Sheridan is with London Irish, Darren Hudson with Bristol and Mark Flanagan with Mont de Marsan. Ben Marshall, Luke McGrath, Cathal Marsh, Collie O’Shea and Bren Macken are squad players with Leinster. The comparison with Cheika’s Debutant’s XV is not like-for-like for the simple reason that Cheika’s started in 2005 while Schmidt’s started in 2010, so the opportunity to be capped is massively skewed in favour of the Cheika selection. Leaving aside that major qualification, I would judge only Luke McGrath and Quinn Roux as further possibilities for Irish selection in the future based on career trajectories and positional requirements.
Joining The Circus
One of the shibboleths of media commentary is that players will have ever shorter careers in future. I’m not sure this stands up to examination; medical attention and expertise is better than ever, and players’ conditioning, diet and rest continues to be refined. Brian O’Driscoll retired after 15 seasons of international rugby, Richie McCaw should reach that landmark this summer, while Gordon D’Arcy is in his 16th season after getting capped against Australia. What would be of more concern to me is the amount of players who don’t have professional careers and who bear the opportunity cost of participating in a profession with very low remuneration in the initial years. Is this alarmist? Probably. Almost all young lads are for the birds so getting stuck into study a few years later isn’t likely to make that much of a difference if a significant deal of application is brought to bear at the appropriate time.
I’ve considered that making a career as a professional rugby player akin to running away and joining the circus and maybe that’s a good analogy. For as much as there is the smell of the grease pain and the roar of the crowd for those who get to the Big Top, there also seems to be a lot of shovelling elephant shit in a short career. On that basis, and acknowledging that none of the particulars have been examined here, it is easy to sympathise with JJ Hanrahan’s decision to go to Northampton and to wish him well. Part of this also has to do with career progression and how it’s interpreted. Hanrahan is still a young player by my methodology. He was nominated for Junior World Player of the Year and still has that lustre. If he stays for another season he increasingly becomes viewed as a squad player and one would expect he would have less bargaining power. It is possible to see parallels with Jonny Sexton’s move to France and about the willingness to make the most of scarce resources while it is still possible.
It’s also easy to see a situation developing where Irish players decide to go to England and France after 3 years in provincial academies and play rugby rather than improving their max deadlifts. The economics of rugby now allow a top class international to earn over €500,000 per annum, but in order to get there you need to play and the earlier the better – vote early and vote often!
Unsurprisingly, this set of circumstances is not unique to Irish rugby. One of the Mole’s early memories of senior rugby was listening to the Crow, a hooker on or about the 1s, being informed that a number of U-20s would be playing with him in an early season league match. “Ah gee,” opined the Crow as he sucked the last out of his cigarette, “under 20s are shite.” Nothing seems to have changed if you listen to the opinions of elder statesmen Andy Goode and Nick Easter on the youth of today in this article in the Telegraph.
“That’s the mentality of these young kids now,” Goode said. “I watch them train from ridiculous o’clock in the morning to late at night and think, ‘Bloody hell, I would struggle to be starting my career right now’… That’s what I find hard these days looking at the academy kids, I don’t think they play enough rugby,” he continued. “That’s where you develop your skills under pressure, which you can’t in training. Obviously there’s a place for learning in the computer rooms and doing your analysis, but you play rugby to play rugby.”
“It is very different in the pressure of the game where decisions they are making on the field are affecting their team and decides whether they win or lose. That is very a different environment from putting the hours in in a training field where there is no real consequence to making errors. We seem to have gone away as a culture from kids playing enough rugby to trying to make them big in the gym. Now it seems to be about how much you can lift rather than developing kids with skill. That’s the big difference between us and the southern hemisphere.”
“Everyone can tackle now,” Easter (a.k.a. Khazi) said. “I preferred it 10 years ago when the back row weren’t bad, your centres could tackle and there was the odd person who could get over the ball but that was about it. As a running No 8 it was a dream. Now everyone can really tackle; even 9s go at your shins, which is annoying.”
“I’m fortunate to be at a club where I can judge myself because we’ve got so many successful young kids coming though the system. It’s not as if I’m keeping up with a lot of the old guard and the dinosaurs. I’ve got to keep up with the younger guys.”
Asked what keeps him ahead of the whippersnappers, Easter returns to the theme of rugby intelligence built up predominately in the lower leagues for Rosslyn Park and Rotherham. “I’ve always thought I had quite a good rugby brain,” Easter said. “People were probably saying, ‘He lacks a yard of pace’, but I always think the first yard is in the head. If you’re making those decisions quickly you can get away with that.”
Coincidentally, BJ Botha spoke about this formative years with Dexy’s at the weekend “I got to learn against older guys. I got punished. I got feckin drilled and then I came back again. He gave me that opportunity, and that led to higher grade sides and the Sharks. Rudolph Straeuli gave me my first opportunity with the Sharks. There were many others but opportunities played a massive role in my career.”
If a conclusion can be drawn from any of these quotes, and an analysis of the teams selected over 10 years by 3 coaches for Leinster, it is that older rugby players are better rugby players for the simple reason that they’ve played, and survived, more rugby. Giving players a start at a younger age allows them to gain experience and an awareness of what is required. The best Irish player of the professional era played his first game for Leinster at 20 years of age when there was no professional Academy. The average age at which subsequently capped players made their provincial debut is about 20.75, kind of like Adrian Mole (no relation). That is correlation rather than causation; starting players at a young age does not guarantee them an international career. Keeping them in the squad and not playing them may guarantee them no sort of career.
Throughout the period under review, Leinster finished no lower than third in the Pro 12 table with four first places, three second-place finishes and two third-place finishes. The comparison that springs immediately to mind is Bayern Munich in the Bundesliga.
What I suspect is that professional rugby has found an equilibrium for itself that suits its vested (tracksuited) interests. Academy weight training programs established to help young players adapt quickly and safely to the rigours of professional rugby have become an end to itself. The players’ ability to post great scores “throwing tin” around the place is assiduously measured but who cares from a rugby point of view? Coaches concerned with meeting their targets for the season, probably a combination of league position and knock out rugby in their cup competition, prefer to pick solid players with experience than take risks with unproven youngsters. A lack of job security leads to a utilitarian approach from the team’s selector and a low risk brand of rugby being espoused. And in all of this no one is to blame – this is the way it is.
With the benefit of hindsight, Michael Cheika had a very good eye for a player and his Leinster set-up produced a number of top quality internationals. He was decisive and enjoyed five years in charge at a time when Leinster’s fan base was growing and not as demanding or accustomed to success.
Joe Schmidt showed the most willingness to pick young players consistently but in big games he selected conservatively. The players he handed debuts to have not enjoyed the same success or progression as their predecessors and the causes behind that are unknown. It may simply be a matter of demographics – there were far fewer births in 1990 compared to 1980 – or something specific to Leinster’s academy.
Which brings us to Matt O’Connor following – as he always will at Leinster – Michael Cheika, the coach of Australia, and Joe Schmidt, the coach of Ireland. Cheika arrived surrounded by tales of independent wealth earned from the rag trade owing to his business acumen. A narrative of him as a decisive risk taker with an eye for a bargain is easy to believe. He was succeeded by Schmidt, the educator, deputy principal of a large secondary school at an early age, who developed young minds, providing structure and discipline, again an easy story to believe. O’Connor has tough acts to follow and lacks the pizazz of Cheika or the knowledge and intensity of Schmidt. He is a hewer of wood and a drawer of water, a hard-working man but one lacking flair and the capacity to take risks. He is a water carrier and this is Leinster’s Age of Aquarius.