The Future

Life is pretty grim right now.

If you’re a TRK subscriber reading back on this from a few years in the future, I wrote this article in the middle of the coronavirus outbreak where all rugby was suspended in March 2020, amongst almost everything else. It’s tough to write anything much these days. The real world outside the bubble of sport is scary in a way that it hasn’t been since the 1940s. It seems inconsequential. I mean, it always was really, when you think about it, but now more than ever. Anything to do with sport just seems like blowing bubbles in a hurricane at the moment.

But then I remember the words of Bill Shankly.

“Some people think football is a matter of life and death. I don’t like that attitude. I can assure them it is much more serious than that.” 

When you take this quote literally, it’s grotesque. Of course, it isn’t life and death. Real-life is life and death. Anything that attempts to put something as trifling as sport on that level is immediately, automatically wrong.

But when we take that quote metaphorically, I think we see its true meaning. Sport transcends real life because it allows us to pretend real life doesn’t apply for a few hours every week. Rugby was always my escape when I was homeless and in the middle of bouts of psychosis. Waiting for three hostel reception desks to call you back and tell you if they have any cancellations for that night outside a McDonalds with a bag full of everything you know? Use some free wi-fi to see who Munster have picked for that week’s Heineken Cup game. Psychosis trying to convince you that people are trying to kill you? Rewatch the weekend’s game frame by frame by frame.

And I would make my escape.

It’s that ability to provide an escape from the horrors that real life throws at us is why sport is so important. Who wins and who loses on a weekend? It means nothing and everything. Sport is meaningless, but it’s beautiful too, and it’s that contradiction that allows us to forget about the world for a while. Let’s forget for a while.

We will wash our hands. We will socially distance. We will beat the fuck out of this coronavirus like it owes us money by staying at home and then, once it is beaten, we will stand again in our stadiums and sing our songs. The next time I’m in Thomond Park or Musgrave Park, I am singing Stand Up and Fight before the game and I don’t care whether I’m in the stands or if I’m sitting next to Dan Mooney in the press box with a mic in my hand. And, God willing, I’ll see you all there.

So, until then, let’s try to forget the world for a little while.

***

No club makes signings without a plan.

Well, that’s not true actually. Some clubs (in France, mainly) just look at who the biggest name they can sign is and just throw money at that guy until he signs. When you see a top player – usually a winger – rocking up to a club and struggling because, hang on, wingers need quality ball to score in line with their ability or else your just looking for them to score a try of the year candidate on every kick return. If you have a world-class winger but no means of winning the ball reliably, building effective phases and then distributing the ball to them at the right time from halfbacks on out, then they’re the equivalent of a giving your dog an AK47 and expecting him to guard your house against a horde of zombies.

The four provinces certainly can’t act in that fashion. All inward signings have to get approval from the IRFU in line with an overall succession plan that takes in short, medium and long term project players. That isn’t “project players” in the way we’ve traditionally seen it – players signed from outside to eventually become Irish qualified – but younger players who have been ID’d as being future cornerstone players for the province and then Ireland.

The mathematics for a province being allowed to sign a player are quite complex but, essentially, it’s based on who you have available right now and who you expect to have in one or two seasons.

Leinster, for example, have had Scott Fardy for the last three seasons because they expected to be without James Ryan and Devin Toner for large tracts of the season because of Ireland duty or Ireland mandated rest.

Fardy provided them with international quality in the second row during those times along with adding to the overall strength of their Category 1 side for big games. That’s before you get to the development benefit that Leinster’s younger players get from training and playing with a top-end player every week. The likes of Ryan Baird, Charlie Ryan, Jack Dunne and even more established guys like Ross Molony can only benefit from their exposure to Fardy. This is the short and medium-term benefit to a non-Irish qualified signing.

There is the immediate benefit of having a great player playing in your team to help results.

Then there is the medium-term benefit of your younger players playing in a winning side alongside these key recruitments.

Then there is the long term benefit of your younger players training alongside and learning directly from this experienced world-class player. Isa Nacewa, Alby Mathewson and Scott Fardy would be recent examples of this from a “mentorship” perspective.

Other players, like Joe Tomane and Arno Botha, would come under the “depth and cover” description where they provide advanced cover in multi-man positions like the backrow and midfield when you have multiple Irish internationals in those spots. For Arno Botha, see Peter O’Mahony and CJ Stander. For Joe Tomane, see Garry Ringrose and Robbie Henshaw.

Other signings cover a specific position where you don’t really have a standout international calibre player and are more focused on improving the performance of the province at a high level. This definition is a little malleable but it can be explained by this – do you have a player that would start a World Cup game if it was played this weekend?

If not, then you could make a case for a marquee signing in a certain position.

This equation has tilted more in favour of Irish provinces making bigger marquee signings since the rule change on residency players. Previously, you could get excellent value out of picking up players that the Southern Hemisphere unions – New Zealand and South Africa in particular because of the number of pro players they produce – might have missed and a three-season commitment was handy for both the player and the province. The likes of Bundee Aki, CJ Stander and James Lowe shows the value that Ireland have extracted from this rule.

Moving the residency to five years makes any signing with residency in mind really difficult to plan for because it’s probably going to have to cover two three year contracts in succession. With the attrition rate of the modern game it’s almost impossible to say who’ll be starring for you in two seasons, let alone five so that ruling change made all but the most obviously talented or athletically gifted 18/19-year-old prospects from abroad completely unfeasible for signing as a residency player that Ireland could use at test level at a realistic age.

Ireland will cap James Lowe this year at 28 years of age after three years of residency with Leinster. Under the five-year rule, Lowe would be at least 30 before he could be capped meaning, realistically, Ireland would only get three or four international seasons out of him at the very most, and most likely much less given the drop off most wingers get at test level. As it stands, we’re likely to get at least four great seasons from Lowe, injury allowing. Even then, signing a potential project player at 25 was a risk. They were certainly more of a proven commodity at that age but time would be against them from the minute they signed up until they could be capped. CJ Stander was signed by Munster at 22 years of age and was Ireland eligible at 25. A signing like this could still work under the new laws but comes with way more risk. Ideally, any residency signing done under the new rule would be done before the age of 22 to maximise the value for the province naturally, but more so for the national side, which is still the main driver of revenue for the game in this country.

Clermont, for example, signed Alivereti Raka from Nadroga, Fiji in 2014 when he was 19 years old. He was a French international in 2019 after making his debut in 2015 but this was under the old residency rules. To say that an Irish province would never take up a high potential player like a Raka, or a Vakatawa with a view to them being an Irish international five years later at the age of 24/25 would be too hasty – you can never say never – but it would be a more high-risk move that you would only make for someone you can (a) realistically sign (b) has an intention to stay with you long term and (c) is considerably better than any player currently in your system at that age group.

With that in mind, marquee signings are a good way to bridge a gap between top players. Ideally, if you’ve got a gap in your squad for a dominant lead ball carrier in the backrow, then the new eligibility rules make signing a marquee player for two or three seasons makes more sense than investing in a residency player for five seasons. The marquee player will, in theory, bridge the gap between where you are now in a certain position and where you hope to be in three seasons with someone who is Irish qualified.

With that in mind, Ulster don’t really have any outstanding Irish qualified candidates that would be ready to play at #8 anytime soon for them or potentially for Ireland – David McCann has a size and athleticism you could certainly work with but he’s only 19 – so re-signing Marcell Coetzee to a new three-year deal in February 2019 makes a lot of sense for Ulster. Coetzee is a world-class player who keeps them in a position to win big games and that helps produce a winning environment that helps everything from young players to ticket sales to moving merch.

By the same token, Leinster couldn’t look to sign a player like, say Ardie Savea, because of the number of players they have who are current Irish internationals (either starting or in the wider squad) that can play 7/8. Now if you wanted to make a case for Leinster to sign someone like Reiko Ioane or Julian Savea, that could be allowed. Leinster don’t currently have any outstanding wing candidates at a prime age in regular Irish contention if we allow that Lowe will be capped soon, that Jordan Larmour is a fullback and that Dave Kearney and Fergus McFadden are coming to the end of the road.

If they were to sign a marquee winger that could start alongside Lowe and Larmour in Cat 1 games and play a big role while both players were away with Ireland, that would be a good result for them.

When speaking about the long term, you have to see if the player you’re signing would be realistically preventing a highly rated young player from getting staged development opportunities.

Munster’s signing of RG Snyman seems to have this in mind with a view to the projected development of Thomas Ahern. Before the shutdown, Ahern was tracking to be one of the standout players of another Irish u20 Grandslam effort but even then, he would be brought through relatively slowly.

“What about James Ryan?” I hear you ask. Well, directly after Ryan’s Ireland finished second in the u20 World Championship in 2016, Ryan spent the entirety of next season out with injury and then made his senior Ireland debut in the Summer of 2017 before having his breakout season with Leinster the season after.

Even then, Ryan only played 762 minutes for Leinster in his breakout 2017/2018 season. For an idea of how many minutes that is, Shane Daly has played 781 minutes for Munster so far this season pre-shutdown. James Ryan played 59 minutes in the November internationals of 2017 and became a regular Irish starter in the 2018 Six Nations against Wales, Scotland, England and France before starting all three tests against Australia in the summer. In total, he played 354 minutes during the season and 240 in the summer.

If we take it that Ahern will follow a similar pattern – albeit with the added “bonus” of some non-rugby conditioning time over the next few months – then, realistically, we’d be expecting him to ascend to an important level for Munster and perhaps Ireland inside the next two seasons, assuming we’re back playing rugby in the autumn.

Ireland Rugby U20 Six Nations Squad Announcement, Fota Island, Cork 20/1/2020 – Mandatory Credit ©INPHO/Ryan Byrne

I would expect to see graduated game time for Ahern (injury permitting) next season alongside the likes of Kleyn and Snyman with an escalation in minutes depending on how he adapts to the rigours of professional rugby in that time.

In the time between he turns from an u20 prospect to a senior player, there is no second row in the game that so closely resembles Thomas Ahern’s projected skillset than RG Snyman, so who better to train with, learn from and play alongside?

The same applies in the #12 jersey with the signing of Damien De Allende.

Right now, Munster only have Rory Scannell signed beyond the end of the 19/20 season who would be described as a specialist “second five” style #12 and, at 26 years of age, looks unlikely to become a regular starter for Ireland anytime soon. Anything is possible, of course, but at the moment he’s behind Bundee Aki, Robbie Henshaw and Stuart McCloskey at the very least for inclusion in regular test squads.

With that in mind, it starts to make a bit more sense as to why Munster chose to sign a world-class marquee player in Damien De Allende.

There are larger game-plan issues at play here – that I’ll get into in another article – but from a “bridging” perspective, you can see the concept at work. Playing Farrell and De Allende together gives Munster a midfield that’s as physically imposing as any team in Europe and the likes of Dan Goggin has the versatility to play alongside one of the two during injury breaks or international windows without compromising the kind of game plan consistency that having two big midfielders brings. It gives us time to look at Alex McHenry as an outside centre and to see if there’s any positional versatility for the likes of Sean French or Ben Healy. De Allende gives us time to assess our options there while also giving us the kind of obvious short term benefits that signing a World Cup-winning midfielder brings.

This doesn’t mean that Rory Scannell will be jettisoned – far from it, I think he has a lot to offer – but every club side has to continually look to improve every position where they don’t have an established international level player if they want to compete at the top end.

This week on the €5 tier, I will be exploring Munster’s possible game-plan and selection thoughts for the coming season with the confirmed new signings and contract extensions.