For the sake of Irish rugby, it could be time to split Leinster into two teams

For the sake of Irish rugby, it could be time to split Leinster into two teams
Leinster's Caelan Doris with Northampton Saints' Connor Tupai. Picture: INPHO/Ryan Byrne

PRODUCERS of end of year sporting highlights shows for 2020 are going to have a tough time of it, with the current Covid-19 crisis threatening to wipe the best part of a year off the sporting calendar.

One of the few exceptions has been the performances of the Ireland U20 rugby team, who looked on the verge of a second successive Grand Slam before the global sporting scene was ground to a halt.

Any watching Munster fans would have been excited at the performances of out-half Jack Crowley and lock Thomas Ahern, with both looking like incredible prospects. 

Perhaps the real story though is the giant elephant in the room that everyone appears to be ignoring when it comes to Irish rugby: Leinster.

Leinster were destroying everything in their path before the season was knocked on its head with the Coronavirus. A total of 19 wins from 19 games. They had serious aspirations of a league and cup double.

The province has to be commended for what they have achieved in the past decade, becoming one of the top clubs in Europe, year in, year out.

From an IRFU perspective, their main purpose is to supply the national team, and in that respect, they have actually overachieved with 26 current Irish internationals on their books.

In fact, the big question that must be addressed with Leinster is as to whether they’ve actually become too successful at achieving this remit.

We have all heard the ‘jokes’ about splitting Dublin GAA in two to make the All-Ireland football championship more competitive, but it is actually something that should be considered with rugby in this country.

The facts would back up this notion.

Munster's Joey Carbery and Ulster's Nick Timoney. Picture: INPHO/Dan Sheridan
Munster's Joey Carbery and Ulster's Nick Timoney. Picture: INPHO/Dan Sheridan

Currently, Munster have six ‘Leinster’ players in their ranks – Joey Carbery, Andrew Conway, Nick McCarthy, Tadhg Beirne, Conor Oliver and Jeremy Loughman. Connacht and Ulster both have 11, with Ulster going to the full dozen once Ian Madigan joins.

That will be 29 players from Leinster playing for the other three provinces, and that’s not even counting academy players like Conor Dean, Sean O’Brien and Jordan Duggan at Connacht.

There are also a number of Leinster players plying their trade in England currently, with London Irish’s Sean O’Brien being the most prominent.

The numbers tell a very simple story, i.e., that Leinster are producing way more players than they themselves require.

Before the shutdown, 51 players were used by Leinster this season in the league and in Europe.

That is a huge number. To get into the Leinster team is an achievement in itself such is the competition for places.

You have a situation whereby players who represented the Ireland U20s way back in 2014, like Ross Byrne and Josh Murphy, are still not getting the game time they should be getting at this stage of their careers.

Likewise, the excellent 2016 vintage included the likes of James Ryan, Max Deegan and Andrew Porter, but four years into their adult careers Will Connors, Hugo Keenan, Jimmy and Conor O’Brien are having their progress stunted by the bottlenecks ahead of them.

Players of their quality should be playing every single week.

Ireland players James Ryan, Max Deegan and Ross Byrne after the Six Nations win over Wales at Aviva Stadium. Picture: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Ireland players James Ryan, Max Deegan and Ross Byrne after the Six Nations win over Wales at Aviva Stadium. Picture: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

This might be wonderful for Leinster, as they can sit back and wait for the cream to rise to the top, but the argument can well be made that this approach is preventing a lot of quality players from reaching their true potential.

A quick look at the Ireland U20 sides from 2017 and 2018 show that Leinster had 14 and 15 players in these respective 32-man Six Nations squads.

Of all these players Caelan Doris, Ronan Kelleher and Jordan Larmour have kicked on to Ireland level, while eight more remain on the Leinster academy books. The rest appear to have scattered to the wind.

Which brings us back to the brilliant Ireland U20 team from this year.

Of the 37 players chosen as part of Noel McNamara’s initial Six Nations squad 20 were from Leinster, which is a phenomenal number.

And the big question has to be asked as to where are they supposed to go?

Not only do they have the 51 players who have played for Leinster this season ahead of them, but a number of other older academy players too.

Quite simply, there is no room at the inn. And the bottleneck is only going to get more and more pronounced.

There were 14 Leinster players in the 2017 Six Nations U20 squad, 15 in 2018, 16 in 2019 and 20 this year.

We can expect similar numbers next year, and the year after, and so on.

Very soon serious consideration will have to be given to forming a fifth professional rugby team on this island.

Some might suggest that Cork and Limerick could have a team each, but the numbers do not support this.

The only logical place for that fifth team would be to have a second team in Dublin.

They have the numbers to support such a team, between the huge numbers already on Leinster’s books, the Leinster ‘diaspora’, and the massive conveyer belt of talent coming up through the highly productive Leinster schools system.

One obvious caveat to this idea would be that a second Dublin team would actually hurt the likes of Ulster and Connacht, as you would be robbing them of one of their biggest recruiting grounds.

Such a move would certainly make the other Irish teams have to double up their efforts in terms of producing their own local talent.

Purely from a numbers perspective, the players are there in Leinster to justify this second team, or at least they soon will be once we get another couple of vintage crops at U20 level.

The only real question is as to whether the numbers would stack up from a financial perspective.

Could the IRFU justify a higher wage bill? Would this new team get enough bums on seats? 

These are questions that would have to be answered well in advance of pressing the ‘Go’ button on such a project.

Leinster would probably suffer a bit, as suddenly they would not have the huge player resources they have at present, but Ireland would benefit hugely, as that extra team would mean that dozens more young Irish players get the game time they need to develop fully.

The IRFU are likely to be slow to adopt such an approach, as they are in rude health financially at present, and this would be a huge gamble from their viewpoint, but it is a gamble that could well take Ireland to the next level and one that certainly should be explored in the coming years.

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