The Age of Aquarius

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.]

Matt’s Men

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.

Young Player table - Leinster

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.

Cheika’s Leinster

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.

Schmidt’s Leinster

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.

Special mention in this season should also go to Rhys Ruddock who was still classified as a young player. Although he “only” made 7 starts, it was his fourth season of first team rugby. Ruddock strikes me as a very conscientious player who has captained each team he has played for and accepted that responsibility dutifully. The closest comparison to Ruddock is Munster captain Peter O’Mahony who is over a year older. O’Mahony seems a much more extroverted character than Ruddock with many more fist pumps, embraces and one-to-one exhortations of encouragement on the pitch compared with the relatively reserved Ruddock. The impression I’ve had of Ruddock is that of the young fogey and I hope as he grows older he is able to draw on his leadership experience and allows it to complement his own game rather than burden it.

Special mention for the 11/12 season should go to Rhys Ruddock who was still classified as a young player. Although he “only” made 7 starts, it was his fourth season of first team rugby. Ruddock strikes me as a very conscientious player who has captained each team he has played for and accepted that responsibility dutifully. The closest comparison to Ruddock is Munster captain Peter O’Mahony who is over a year older. O’Mahony seems a much more extroverted character than Ruddock with many more fist pumps, embraces and one-to-one exhortations of encouragement on the pitch compared with the relatively reserved Ruddock. The impression I’ve had of Ruddock is that of the young fogey and I hope as he grows older he is able to draw on his leadership experience and allows it to complement his own game rather than burden it.

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.

Conclusions

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.

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30 thoughts on “The Age of Aquarius

  1. It should also be noted that of the 6 players that have gotten starting debuts under MOC only 1 of them was a back who got 2 caps in last years 6 Nations and hasn’t been seen since. Looking at the players who have gotten real opportunities to progress they are pretty much exclusively forwards. The backs that have had a look in outside the guys who played a lot under Joe have been:

    Luke McGrath – barely gotten a look in until the last 2 weeks.
    Fanning – a good squad player at Pro12 level but never a long term top prospect or potential international.
    Mick McGrath – similar to Fanning and only selected in emergencies.
    O’Shea – hardly featuring outside of emergencies and has had significantly less game time in the 1.5 seasons under MOC than he had in Schmidts last season.
    Reid – got his debut under Schmidt but developed a lot last season.

    So Reid and at a push Luke McGrath are the only 2 backs to get any real look in under MOC so far. Seeing as the guy is our backs coach that is somewhat uninspiring.

  2. Fascinating stuff (though you may need to invest in an editor – that was about three articles’ worth!).

    Is MOC’s Leinster setting up to look like Deccie’s Munster? Mortgaging future success for glory in the here and now?

    • Yeah, it was given some consideration, it kind of grew after going back 10 years! I think that most pro coaches are conscious of getting silverware on their CV so that it’s easier to get the next job. It’s human nature, given the choice between glory and long term development I believe most fans would go for glory

  3. What a tour de force of a piece. Very impressive and huge insights. Thoroughly enjoyed it and was suitably informed bi it.

  4. Brilliant as always. Thank you.

    It would be interesting to know of the approach taken by the Leinster academy in developing players has changed at all since its inception. Does the Leinster academy focus on gym development as much as others and has it always been so?

  5. There was one line where you questioned the call of young lads risking a future for the chance of being a starter. I often wonder what motivates the Tom Dentons of the world who have to do all the training,video sessions etc. and never get to play!
    Most young lads in the academy combine it with a university degree so the 3/4 years is probably not stalling a career for too long.

    • I think the difference is that the squad professionals (Tom Denton, Michael Bent etc) of this world are well remunerated for 20-somethings while academy players aren’t. I read that Conor Gilsenan aimed to complete his UCD course over five years rather than three and have heard that members of some provincial academies find it difficult to combine first year college and first year university so uni gets chucked.

  6. Great article. I was wondering if you factored in the AIL games that players take part in? While a lot of these young lads might not be playing PRO12 they are usually taking part in B&I Cup games and AIL games which can be a decent level. Surely that’s helping in the rugby education stakes?

    • Thanks.
      I think it definitely helps and that they benefit from playing rugby. However, making the step up to any grade for the first time is a different kettle of fish – faster pace, bigger hits, better opponents and team mates. The sooner you get that experience the sooner you can adapt and get your head around its requirements. I also have the opinion that there’s a big difference in starting and coming on as a sub from both physical and mental points of view.

  7. Brilliant work sir. The “trade-off” point is an interesting one – the opportunity cost for Cheika to invest in talented youngsters was lower as he took on a quasi-AIL team, higher for Schmidt as he took on a HEC-winning team, and higher again for MOC as he took on one of the best teams in Europe, albeit one that had been together and was seeing departures. Cheika has balls, no doubt about it, but the cost to him of putting (talented) youngsters in the team was correspondingly lower.

    Worth thinking about incentives too – at what point is it worth MOC’s while to develop youngsters, particularly if his contractual situation comes up for discussion – Cheika and Schmidt effectively had all the time they needed, but MOC might be thinking, get a home league playoff and another pot becomes more likely, and will help me in my job search in 9 months time.

    • Absolutely and I think Pat Lam has the best of both worlds in Connacht this season, he has made good signings and plays young guys without being expected to qualify for a knock out spot. I think that Lam’s success, with an emphasis on ball skills and an attacking culture, points the way forward for Irish provincial rugby which will be unable to compete consistently in an Arm Wrestle with monied English and French clubs.

  8. Well the IRFU could operate a policy whereby the finance paid by the central command to the provinces was related to the number of academy players advancing through the ranks. All very well in theory but I recall that when Wasps were in financial dire straits some years back, there was a suggestion that they were playing the youngsters in first team because they needed to maximise the cash they would get under the agreement between the club and the RFU regarding the academy

  9. Great post Mole.
    Despite shipping a lot of criticism from the public for not posting regularly enough you have come up trumps again. You’re rugby knowledge and general use of the English language is totally under utilised on this forum. Surely Denis O’Brien will recognise your talent and give you a job at one of his several meeja companies. Do you have an agent?

  10. The Mole disgorges rarely, but when he does they are always well digested pieces. Another excellent piece which, placed beside some of the hysteria emanating from the friends of the South, puts a more realistic perspective on the trials, tribulations and trade-offs in the world of professional coaching.

    From a slightly different perspective, can the era of Transfer Fees be far off? If one casts Leinster (and potentially Ulster / Munster / Connacht) in the role of the Dutch football Clubs of the 70’s & 80’s, where the emphasis was on skills, tactics and execution, will the future for Leinster be bound-up with generating income from the development of an excess of highly competent graduates of their Academy, who cannot all be accommodated at home, but can be transferred to Toulon et al, so that Leinster can afford the odd foray into the market for selected world greats?

    Alternatively, should Irish Rugby merely try to recruit the (three or four) best coaches in the world with the objective of ensuring the best outcomes in the investment that the IRFU and Provinces make in their Academies?

    Great, stimulating, writing. Keep up the output!

  11. First of all congratulations on such a comprehensive article that your journalistic peers can only aspire to. Your classification of “young players” as under 23, is necessary for the article but is probably somewhat crude considering the different conditioning demands of backs and forwards. A promising outside back blessed with pace and footwork will normally be capped ahead of a front-five forward of a similar age. Also, at the other end of the spectrum, front five forwards’ careers tend to last longer into their thirties relative to their twinkle-toed peers. Furthermore, as the game has become more professional, conditioning requirements have increased so a young player may have to undergo more weight training than he might have had to 10 years ago.

    Another interesting point is Leinster’s Academy was renound for producing homegrown backs. O’Driscoll, Horgan, D’arcy, Sexton, Kearney and Fitzgerald have all been on Lions tours and the only comparable example in terms of producing world class talent (in the British & Irish Isles) would be Leicester Tigers academy’s forward production line. So after producing a litany of world class backs from 2000-2010, Leinster are now resorting to plucking wingers from the AIL to plug holes that the academy would previously have filled. Admittedly, a host of backs left Leinster prematurely to pursue careers elsewhere due to the backlog ahead of them (Felix Jones, Andrew Conway, Niall Morris, Fionn Carr, Darrren Hudson, Eamonn Sheridan and Shane Monaghan come to mind). But the next crop of outside backs currently in the academy are either not trusted or not good enough. Another interesting anomaly is Leinster’s failure to produce a homegrown scrumhalf in the 20 years of professionalism. Luke McGrath looks promising but the prominent scrum halves for Leinster in the professional era have been either imported or from the other provinces.

    Conversely, Leinster’s forward production line from the academy in the 2000-2010 period was less fruitful in comparison to the backs. Using tighthead as an example, Will Green, Stan Wright, CJ Van De Linde and Ollie Le Roux are just a few examples of foreign imports that Leinster employed during the period. Roll forward to 2015 and it could be argued that Leinster have the top 3 Irish props (admittedly Ross was not an academy product but Moore and Furlong are). Also, I am willing to bet the house on Jeremy Loughman becoming an Irish international. So the question I ask is why are Leinster suddenly producing international pedigree forwards but struggling to produce Pro12 backs? Can it simply be mean reversion? Are the forward coaches of higher calibre than the backs coaches now in the academy? Has something gone awry in how backs are developed?

    A true test of the Leinster talent pipeline will come in September and October next season with so many players (up to 18) involved in the World Cup squad. O’Connor, if still in situ will have no option to trust the academy players so it is sink or swim time for the aspiring professionals.

    • Ireland have never had a top-tier scrum-half in my life-time of watching rugby (since late 80s). Conor Murray has a chance of getting there. Doesn’t seem to be a position we do that well.

      • I’da put Niall Hogan there, but he retired very young to be a surgeon. One of the great what-ifs of the amateur era. Otherwise, agreed.

      • Ireland’s strange dearth of top class scrum halves goes back much further than the 1980’s. John Robbie played a single Lions test in 1980. Andy Mulligan travelled on the ’59 Lions but was not in the test side, as did Robbie McGrath in 1983. Mark Sugden in the late 1920’s and early 30’s was regarded as the best scrum half in the home nations – but as was the way at the time did not travel on the 1930 Lions – it required 4-6 months to go on such a tour. With Sugden and possibly Robbie as exceptions therefore, ireland have never had the preeminent scrum half in the 4/5/6 nations. Niall Hogan, who this correspondent played against, was a really decent player but not ever a candidate as a Lion against the likes of Matt Dawson, Rob Howley, Gary Armstrong; Robert Jones or others of that vintage. Hence the arrival (unexpected to this observer) of Conor Murray as a really top class player last season is particularly notable. In every other position Ireland has many notable candidates for designation as ‘great’ players – finally we might have a scrum half who fits the bill.

      • Roger Young who played with Ireland in the 1960’s deserves consideration as a class operator. I believe that he also ended up in SA

      • Yes you’re right I’ve neglected Roger Young – although given that he would have been a distant second to Gareth Edwards in the international pecking order, and only played for the Lions in ’68 because Edwards was injured – I dont think he is really the exception to the rule here

  12. Brilliant mole, just brilliant. Interesting that Schmidt selected to what appears nearly a prescriptive manner (a bit like Stuart Lancaster and his number of caps thing). I would have casually thought his was the good management model-rather than just sink or swim he tried to put them in shallow water were he had a a fair idea they would manage ok and build from there. It is incredible though how the arguably more ‘natural selection’ selection of cheika seems to have reaped such a harvest. A lot of unquantifiable variables in there like (not least that chieka’s bambinoes had the benefit of Schmidt subsequently!), but fascinating nonetheless – who dares wins indeed. You seem to be a big McKinley fan-is great to hear of how well he has done and is doing. Great work sir.

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