Do the IRFU unfairly promote Leinster dominance in Irish rugby?

One of the hardy annuals which comes up all the time when other club fans discuss Leinster is the unfairly favourable treatment Leinster allegedly get from the IRFU. The main complaint is that while Leinster will have 10 centrally contracted players from next season, Ulster, Munster, and Connacht will only have one apiece.

But let’s get real here: You have to be world class to get a central contract if you are at Leinster, while Henderson, Murray, and Earls (prior to his retirement) were on central contracts for a long time after they ceased being first XV players for Ireland. Van Der Flier was World player of the year while on a provincial Leinster contract, and Sheehan, Gibson Park, and Caelan Doris will only be upgraded to a central contract from next season.

James Lowe, first choice Ireland left winger for the past three seasons with 31 caps is still on a provincial contract. Jack Conan (46 caps plus 4 for the Lions), Jordan Larmour (32 caps), Rónan Kelleher (30 caps), Ross Byrne (22), Ryan Baird (20), Luke McGrath (19), Joe McCarthy (11) are all on provincial contracts, while it is a long time since Cian Healy had a central contract.

The IRFU also subsidises the salaries of all provincially contracted players to the tune of €50,000 to €110,000 p.a., depending on how highly a player is rated, so it is not as if they make no further contribution to provincial finances.

And where do the IRFU get all this money from? Why, the international game of course, where the rewards depend on how well our team does in the 6 Nations and on how big the crowds they can attract are. Without a successful national team, IRFU national rugby finances would be in the same perilous and precarious state we currently see in Wales, Scotland, and Australia.

Leinster typically contribute 20 players to our international squad, and yet only one third of them are on central contracts now, and half will be on central contracts from next season. Most professional rugby players average only about 20 games per season, and if half of those are in international test matches, their club only gets to play them for about 10 games per season.

Leinster are often criticised for playing their “B” team in regular season URC matches. But IRFU player welfare rules and the physical demands of the game mean they have no choice but to do so. Add up all the international and provincial caps any player at any club has and divide them by the number of years they have been on a senior contract, and the answer is almost always less than 20 games per season. Injuries, squad rotation, and the demands of the Ireland team mean top test players rarely play in lower profile URC games.

Of course, Leinster have many natural advantages, with the largest city, most populous province, largest club system and the infamous private feeder schools. This gives them more income from bigger crowds and opportunities for commercial sponsorship. They have used this income to develop a wide range of elite player development pathways, regional player development officers, club academies, sub academies and their famous provincial academy.

But none of this guarantees success. Ulster were the first Irish Province to win a European Cup in 1999 and Munster were the trailblazers in 2006 and 2008. At that time, they dominated the Irish rugby team and the central contract system. Leinster are doing well now because they have had a stable and capable coaching team for many years now and have invested in young player development rather than the quick fix of importing expensive stars from abroad who may or may not contribute to the development of local talent.

Leinster have often had only a couple of Non Ireland Eligible (NIE) players in their squad – At the moment these are Charlie Ngatai, Michael Ala’Alatoa and Jason Jenkins, with the latter two leaving at the end of the season. Next season they will be replaced by RG Snyman and Jordie Barrett (for 6 months), and I think they still need to recruit a test class tighthead for when Furlong is unavailable and until 20 year old academy recruit Paddy McCarthy matures into the position.

But generally speaking, Leinster have put their resources into developing indigenous talent which has not only yielded rich dividends for Leinster but has benefited the other provinces as well. Ulster, Munster, and Connacht have all relied heavily from time to time on a net inflow of talent first identified and developed by the Leinster system.

This season alone, Temi Lasisi and Ben Murphy are heading for Connacht, while sadly, Ross Moloney and Ed Byrne have not been picked up by an Irish province and have decided to head for Bath and Cardiff in order to further their careers. There may be several more “transfers” in the pipeline, with Leinster and Irish u.20 out half, Jack Murphy, rumoured to be joining his father, Richie, in Ulster.

But my central argument is that, far from the IRFU unfairly favouring Leinster, it is Leinster who are currently doing most of the heavy lifting in developing the game throughout Ireland by providing the IRFU with an outstanding squad of test level talent which underpins the success of the Irish team and the finances of the entire IRFU system.

Without Leinster developed players, there would be very little success for Ireland teams at any level, and no excess revenue to distribute to the other provinces by way of provincial player salary subsides, academy staff, elite player development pathways, and the club game generally. Just ask the Welsh, Scottish and Australian clubs what life is like when the national side and national union finances are not doing well.

Of course, it would be great if each province were just as successful as Leinster, and perhaps Munster can pull off the URC double this year. However, the advent of South African teams in the URC means that the standards which brought Ulster and Connacht success in the past are no longer good enough for anything more than a mid-table position now. Employing professional players from abroad should rarely be more than a stop gap for when the academy system fails to develop a top player in a particular specialist position.

The solution is for Ulster and Connacht is to invest further in their own elite player development pathways rather than destroy what Leinster has achieved. We need more talent coming through in every corner of Ireland, not less. And we must not undermine the finances of a union almost entirely dependent on the international game to finance every level of the game in Ireland.

Almost every other country in the world is envious of what Ireland has achieved on relatively small resources, and many are planning to copy our central contract system. What other country can attract 82,300 spectators to a club match? English rugby commentators are now lobbying the EPCR to move European cup semi-finals to neutral venues to prevent Leinster getting an “unfair” advantage – an advantage that was available to every other team by winning their pool matches. It’s not as if English clubs don’t move their matches to a bigger nearby stadium if the potential demand for tickets is there. Harlequins played Northampton in Twickenham recently.

And it is not unusual for one club to become dominant in a country for a number of years – think Saracens in England, Toulouse and Toulon in France, and Crusaders in New Zealand. These eras often pass quite quickly when a few key players or coaches move on. It is also not all about money or size. Many of the top clubs come from smaller cities where there is a strong tradition and infrastructure for rugby. Paris, Johannesburg, and Auckland clubs have not dominated their national leagues.

Neither are Leinster unusual for playing a “B” side if they need to rest their top players for a big match. Northampton beat Challenge Cup finalists Gloucester 90-0 at the week-end. At least Leinster’s “B” teams generally put up a better fight than that. So which league is more devalued as a result? The Premiership or the URC?

So, there is a lot of envy as well as resentment in some of the insults thrown at Leinster. Successful teams will often attract that from their rivals. Leinster doesn’t have a history of nefarious dealings such as Harlequins and “bloodgate,” or Saracens and breaches of the salary cap. It is not owned by a capricious oligarch. One look at the FAI should be enough to remind people of the damage poor management over a prolonged period time can wreck.

So let us enjoy Leinster’s dominance while it lasts. Those who wish to destroy Leinster by forcing their best players to leave should be careful what they wish for. Successful Leinster players and established internationals like Jack McGrath, Marty Moore, Jordi Murphy, Ian Madigan, and Joey Carbury did not necessarily greatly improve the fortunes of the clubs they joined. There is something in the water of playing out your childhood dream for your hometown club, surrounded by friends, schoolmates, and family that does not necessarily translate well into other environments.

What makes Irish rugby almost unique in the world is that it is still controlled by a Union rather than oligarchs or commercial interests, is built upon local traditions and loyalties, relies largely on home grown talent, and has a strong affiliation with local communities, clubs, and voluntary effort. We change that model at our peril. Leinster’s critics at home and abroad would do well to tone down the negative rhetoric, and far better off developing similar systems. If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, engaging in negative rhetoric about your rivals is often  an admission of defeat.

We will not appreciate the full measure of Leo Cullen’s achievements until he’s gone, and Leinster dominance is no more.


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