“Munster’s best performers on the day both came from outside the province.” – Neil Francis, Irish Independent.
If you bought the Irish Independent on Sunday you’ll have seen the above in the aftermath of Munster’s win over Gloucester the day before. “But Tom,” I can already hear you think, “it’s Neil Francis. Nobody cares. He’s a rodeo clown to entertain the ever-dwindling salmon jumper beige chino OAP set and the golf swing avatar Leinster fan who’s still so obsessed with Lansdowne Road 2006 that he can’t enjoy anything to do with his own club unless it’s filtered through a negative slant on Munster.”
And look, all that’s true, and this article isn’t about Neil Francis – or his little spooky friend – so, ultimately, you have to do what everyone else with at least two working brain cells does and completely ignore him. But, as one would do with a bacteria that threatens a pandemic, we have to extract some of the bile from the headline above and examine the sentiment expressed within, because it’s more common than you’d think.
I’m talking about the notion of provenance.
When it was announced that Nick McCarthy would be joining Joey Carbery, Andrew Conway, Jeremy Loughman and Tadhg Beirne at Munster next season, my mentions began to flutter with worries about “Munster’s identity”. These worries didn’t come from Munster fans – they rarely do – but instead came from that unique brand of fan that seems to more preoccupied with provenance than your average farmer’s market boutique food truck. When you see Neil Francis talking about “Munster’s best performers on the day both came from outside the province” they’re the people he’s winking at. The implication is that Munster having players from outside the province playing well (while still being Irish) is, somehow, something shameful.
I never quite understood why this was supposed to be the case, given the roles that Mike Ross, Eoin Reddan, John Fogarty, Stephen Keogh, Trevor Hogan, Mike McCarthy, Ian Nagle, Robbie Henshaw, Isaac Boss and Sean Cronin have all had (and continue to have) at Leinster over the last decade. Even the “foreigner” argument is one that perplexes, given the impact that the likes of Richardt Strauss, Michael Bent, Stan Wright, Nathan Hines, Rocky Elsom, Felipe Contepomi, Heinke van der Merwe, Brad Thorn, Ben T’eo, Hayden Triggs, Jimmy Gopperth, Isa Nacewa, James Lowe, Jamison Gibson Park and Scott Fardy have had over the same time period at Leinster.
It seems that relying on players produced outside your home province in key positions has become more of a problem in the last few years, right as Leinster don’t have to do it as much anymore. Strange timing, for sure.
Neil Francis and Golf Swing Avatar Twitter aren’t alone in this sentiment either, as Leinster coach Leo Cullen had a little nibble of his own over the last few weeks in the direct aftermath of McCarthy’s announced departure.
“Everyone here at the club is conscious of the fact that there are a lot of Leinster players being targeted. I’m not sure what the best way to describe it is. We talked about it in the lead-in to the Munster game a few weeks ago: how Munster had changed quite significantly. There was a big South African influence there, even some young guys coming into the academy, and there are a good few Leinster guys down there.”
The bolded part was quoted from this article by Ruaidri O’Connor in the Irish Independent, the only outlet to run Cullen’s quotes about Munster in full to my knowledge.
You can forgive Leo for being a little upset at losing a guy who’s third on the depth chart at Leinster, and his little dig at Munster (and others) “phonecalls” have to be viewed in that light. It’s an emotional time for Leo to lose out on a contract negotiation so soon after the Carbery issue and, let’s be honest, they don’t have much else to be complaining about in Dublin given their position as #1 team in Europe and a good shout for the best club side playing the game right now. Maybe Leo sees a bit of himself in McCarthy (and Carbery) with regards to phone calls and leaving Leinster as he did exactly the same thing when Leicester came calling back in 2005.
But does he have a point? Have Munster changed significantly?
Of Munster’s 49 man senior squad in 2018, twenty-nine were born inside the provincial bounds of Munster, seven were born in Leinster, five were born in South Africa, four were born in England, three were born in New Zealand and one was born Ulster. In Munster’s academy, 15 were born in Munster, two were born in Leinster, one was born in Wales and two were born in South Africa.
59% of the senior squad is “indigenous” but the numbers in last weekend’s matchday squad – distorted somewhat by injury – were slightly less than that at 56%. There’s no doubting that Munster have some work to do to catch up with Leinster – everyone outside of New Zealand does, in fairness – but the recent moves down the M7 are mostly a demographics issue, as the IRFU themselves put in their recent strategic plan.
“What we do have to realise is that 50% of the rugby population and about 50% of the entire population is based in Leinster, so it is no surprise that Leinster are in the position they’re in. They also have this unique advantage of an incredibly vibrant school scene, so they are almost unique worldwide in terms of the advantages they have. […] the reality is Leinster is a unique environment. Can we recreate that environment in Ulster and Munster? I don’t think we can because it’s different. There are elements of similarity in the schools system in Ulster and it’s how we try and bring that on. Munster is difficult in that there are not as many schools, it’s much more club-based so each province is slightly different.
If Munster can fill a hole in the squad or even a starting spot, then it makes sense to do that with another Irish guy if they can’t fill it from within, with Beirne, Carbery and Conway being recent examples in Munster. But this is not new in Irish rugby. Leinster have done this with Sean Cronin and Robbie Henshaw in the last few years. Connacht have filled gaps from elsewhere in Ireland, as have Ulster. Leinster have had to do it with much less frequency than they might have in the past but everyone at Munster will know how the quickly the wheel can turn with a few retirements and long-term injuries screwing up succession planning. Consider that Munster went from producing Ireland’s 1-10 for much of the 2000s to having a fraction of that a decade later with devastating injuries to key guys and development stalling long-term injuries to earmarked future prospects.
Producing players is, for the most part, a numbers game mixed with how good your system is multiplied by injury luck. Munster’s system is good – look at the Lions produced since 2000 – but talent ID, talent flow and injury “luck” has been the issue for some time. Personally, I feel the academy numbers of the last two or three years will be the best since the late 2000s but this will have to continue. Leinster had the same challenge in the mid-2000s and with hard work, investment and their natural advantages, they turned into the production juggernaut they are in 2018.
The fact is that, for the time being at least, it’s going to be difficult for Leinster to hang onto guys that are second or third in their depth chart in certain positions. They produce so many guys that are ready for professional rugby – in part due to their excellent structures and down to their natural demographic and location advantages unique to them – that they won’t be able to hang onto all of them. It’s almost impossible given the numbers.
Nick McCarthy is a perfect example because he was essentially scrapping it out for a spot on the bench in big games with Jamison Gibson Park. Carbery was the same, in that he was fighting with Ross Byrne for the spot behind Sexton or covering Rob Kearney off the bench. McCarthy, who’s good enough to nail down the second spot on the depth chart in Munster, had a choice to make – fight for a bench spot while two young lads in Patterson and Sullivan make a case behind him or go elsewhere? He made the same decision that Carbery made and that Conway, Jones and others made before him. That it’s better to go somewhere you can build something for yourself out on the pitch rather than wait for the promise of a chance that a club like Leinster just can’t make right now. How can they? The quality they have in almost every position makes it a shark tank. If you’re a young back row in Leinster looking at an all international roster of Dan Leavy, Jack Conan, Josh Van Der Flier, Rhys Ruddock and Sean O’Brien, you’re essentially waiting for an injury breakdown or a catastrophic loss of form to get close to establishing yourself.
That’s a tough sell for Cullen to make. He’ll probably have to make the same case to Adam Byrne, Tom Daly, Peter Dooley, Ross Molony and Rory O’Loughlin soon enough and the likes of Max Deegan/Caelin Doris in a few years time. That’s the challenge that comes when you have Leinster’s demographics, elite systems and accompanying success.
For now, Munster’s identity will remain unchanged as long as results continue on the pitch.
We like to attach a significance to an “all Munster born” matchday twenty-three. Munster could name a fully Munster-born matchday 23 for the Heineken Cup game in December. No CJ Stander, no Chris Cloete, no Jean Kleyn, no Sam Arnold, no Rhys Marshall, no Chris Farrell, no Andrew Conway, no Mike Haley, no Tadhg Beirne and no Joey Carbery.
We’d still have Niall Scannell, Billy Holland, Dave Kilcoyne, James Cronin, John Ryan, Stephen Archer, Tommy O’Donnell, Rory Scannell, Dan Goggin, Darren Sweetnam, Peter O’Mahony, Conor Murray, and Keith Earls. But the depth thereafter would start to suffer.
Any hardcore birthright-only matchday 23 Munster fan would soon forget about the purity of birthplace with two years of bad results.
The ugly truth is that all that matters to Irish fans, be they Leinster, Connacht, Ulster or Munster, is that their team competes at the top end over the medium to long-term.
If you can do that with 80% homegrown players supplemented with a few outside province Irish, IQ players and NIQ, great.
If you can do it with 60% homegrown, 20% Irish, 10% IQ and 10% NIQ, that’s all good too.
There literally is no other way that any Irish province will be set up for the next 10 years so they’re the only two options there are. The only criteria are – succeed and, while you’re doing it, produce players for the national team.
Local purity goes out the window the minute results start to flop and stay there.
If Munster have to supplement from outside the province but inside the country to stay there, they will and should. Leinster have and will do the same if they need to. If that ecosystem and marketplace of players continue to develop, Irish rugby will be the ultimate winner.