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Radical plan for fifth pro team would further Irish rugby success

Extra.ie logo Extra.ie 17/12/2018 Hugh Farrelly
a group of football players posing for a picture © Provided by Associated Newspapers (Ireland) Limited, t/a dmg Media Ireland

Irish rugby’s phenomenal strength in depth is an overriding theme this season and has just claimed Bernard Jackman as its latest victim.

Jackman was let go as Dragons head coach last week and, while the axe fell on the back of an eight-try Challenge Cup defeat in Northampton, it was the home loss to Leinster the week before that ultimately did for him.

Leo Cullen brought a second/third string side to Rodney Parade to face Jackman’s fully loaded Dragons and the home side were obliterated – shipping nine tries in a 59-10 humiliation – a remarkable result on the back of Leinster’s 52-7 dismantling of the Ospreys at the RDS the previous week, with an equally callow selection.

Jerome Kerviel et al. posing for the camera: CityJet Pro14 © Associated Newspapers (Ireland) Limited, t/a dmg Media Ireland CityJet Pro14

Cullen’s collection of Academy ‘prospects’ looked like seasoned internationals – exuding a confidence and ability far in excess of what we expect from youngsters taking their first steps in the pro game – and sending players this good back to the All-Ireland League until the next chance of a run out during the Six Nations did not seem right.

However, there is simply not enough room to showcase them and, with Leinster’s remarkable schools system annually unleashing waves of fresh talent, supply is now far outstripping demand. Which is why Leinster’s overflow is being so liberally dispersed throughout the other provinces, and overseas.

That knock-on effect has created swelling depth at the other provinces also, with Munster, Ulster and Connacht all now capable of mixing up their teams as required – as we saw with Connacht’s experimental selection in Perpignan on Friday.

a group of football players on a field © Provided by Associated Newspapers (Ireland) Limited, t/a dmg Media Ireland

This logjam has trickled down to the club game where highly accomplished youngsters are unable to get a foothold in the Irish pro game due to the queue ahead and there is a growing exodus of AIL players hunting careers in America or the lower English and French leagues. All of which leads us to an intriguing question: Is it time to consider a fifth professional franchise in Irish rugby?

Yes, is the short answer. That could certainly be described as wishful thinking but what better time to indulge it?

And, when you consider the ‘Celtic’ League is now home to teams from Italy and South Africa and has thrown eyes at the US, a fifth Irish professional team does not seem so radical.

THE CONCEPT

a man holding a football ball © Provided by Associated Newspapers (Ireland) Limited, t/a dmg Media Ireland

Simple. Keep Irish talent in the Irish system. Last week also brought the news Leinster centre Noel Reid could be off to Leicester. With Garry Ringrose, Robbie Henshaw and Rory O’Loughlin ahead of him and Jimmy and Conor O’Brien (both superb against Dragons) pushing hard behind, Reid is entitled to look abroad. But, at 28, the versatile and skilful Reid still has a great deal to offer Irish rugby – if there was a way to get consistent game time.

Rugby is ‘trending’ in this country but, while the top flights in England and France have 12 and 14 pro teams respectively, as well as secondary leagues, Ireland are limited to four.

Those are much bigger countries with far greater playing numbers but evidence suggests there is more than enough talent available to cater for a fifth Irish franchise.

Of course, there are cultural issues to consider. The reason Ireland’s professional model has done so well is because the four provinces carry clear identity and a new franchise would have to acknowledge that and not try to compete artificially.

It’s not that long since Connacht were officially seen as a ‘development province’ by the IRFU but they have grown way beyond that – recent plans to develop their Sportsground home emphasising how far the 2016 Pro12 champions have come. It leaves the development avenue open – not another ‘province’ but rather a separate franchise, let’s call them ‘The Wolfhounds’ (that name is available since the demise of Ireland A games) aimed at catering for the overflow of talent in the Irish game.

a group of people posing for the camera: John Muldoon Last Game © Associated Newspapers (Ireland) Limited, t/a dmg Media Ireland John Muldoon Last Game

Finding meaningful, competitive matches for up and coming pros is a challenge consuming the IRFU at present – they are at loggerheads with the clubs over a more streamlined AIL and the Celtic Cup ‘A’ competition simply isn’t cutting it.

A fifth franchise would solve a lot of those problems and would only be good news for the national side.

THE LOCATION

a group of people posing for the camera © Provided by Associated Newspapers (Ireland) Limited, t/a dmg Media Ireland

Given that the majority of excess talent is coming through Leinster, Dublin is the obvious choice. There is a modern, ready-made stadium in Donnybrook where Leinster do not play competitively any more and enough population available to attract decent crowds. However, while the province would be bulk distributors, basing ‘The Wolfhounds’ down the road from the RDS would essentially make them Leinster A in an area where rugby appetites are already well catered for.

Athlone, and its recently developed stadium, would be another option although its relative remoteness from major airports could lead to logistical problems.

Waterford city is a large urban conurbation that does not register in rugby terms but has no obvious stadium option which brings us to probably the most viable location, Cork.

Since the Munster Rugby operation shifted to Limerick a couple of years ago, Cork has been marginalised and given its long and significant contribution to the province, there is a resentment at the province now being widely perceived as a Limerick entity.

a group of football players on a field © Provided by Associated Newspapers (Ireland) Limited, t/a dmg Media Ireland

There are far less supporters prepared to travel up the N20 to watch matches in Thomond Park and the feeling at ground level is that young Cork players are falling through the cracks owing to lack of scouting and the pressure to be based in Limerick. It is why  both UCC and Cork Constitution have set up their own academies to develop local players.

The reveloped Musgrave Park (capacity 8,000) deserves far more exposure than the handful of low-key Pro14 matches it is currently allowed and, as well as the logistical advantage of Cork Airport, both UCC and CIT have top-of-the-range facilities to cater for a pro franchise.

But perhaps the most compelling argument in favour of a Cork base for ‘The Wolfhounds’ project is that it would tap into the aforementioned resentment and ‘Rebel’ culture. Even with a squad dominated by Leinster’s overflow, Cork people would get behind the concept through a sense of pride at being relevant again.

a stadium with a circuit board © Provided by Associated Newspapers (Ireland) Limited, t/a dmg Media Ireland

Which brings us to the next, and most critical, issue – where would the money come from?

FUNDING

With the national team cash cow in full flow, the IRFU are in good financial nick and the recent €27 million windfall from the sale of land at Newlands Cross has added to the rosy picture. However, that money is, commendably,  earmarked for grassroots development and the union are adamant they would not be in a position to fund a fifth province.

Which leaves private investment. With the Irish economy on the way back up, there is money available but, rather than emulate the single multi-millionaire owners that drive the big English and French clubs, a new Irish team would probably require a consortium of backers to get off the ground.

a man holding a football ball: Rob Kearney © Provided by Associated Newspapers (Ireland) Limited, t/a dmg Media Ireland Rob Kearney

There may well be interest in such a venture – especially in Cork where the establishment of a professional franchise would carry considerable PR and marketing benefits.

It would, however, need to be an agreement to operate within IRFU controls, even without union funding, to avoid the bitter club v country stand-offs of England and France.

Finding the millions to fund a fifth team is a big ask – but not an impossible one.

THE PERSONNEL

© Provided by Associated Newspapers (Ireland) Limited, t/a dmg Media Ireland

The most exciting aspect to the venture. A ‘Wolfhounds’ franchise syphoning off their players would not go down well with the other provinces but they would have to fall into line if instructed and it would create openings for the next wave.

A fifth team would also lure home Irish rugby’s wild geese (players and coaches) once the money was available to offer competitive wages. There would be scope for overseas signings also to add experience and gravitas in key positions like scrum-half and second row where Irish depth is not as strong as in other positions.

For example, Wallaby No9 Nick Phipps is out of contract next year while there are numerous southern hemisphere second rows around the globe who missed the international boast but may be interested in a career in Ireland.

But, primarily, this would be about finding exposure for the likes of Leinster tyros Scott Penny and Caelan Doris who might otherwise have to wait longer to break through than their abilities deserve.

The notion of a fifth pro team may seem fanciful but, heading into World Cup year, Irish rugby is dreaming big and that is never a bad thing.

POSSIBLE ‘WOLFHOUNDS’ SQUAD

© Provided by Associated Newspapers (Ireland) Limited, t/a dmg Media Ireland

Three-quarters: Hugo Keenan (Leinster), Barry Daly (Leinster), Jimmy O’Brien (Leinster), Noel Reid (Leinster), Gavin Mullin (Leinster), Ronan O’Mahony (Munster), Luke Marshall (Ulster), Brendan Macken (London Irish), Eoin Griffin (Connacht), Tom Daly (Leinster), Jaco Taute (Munster), Stephen Fitzgerald (Munster), Dan Goggin (Munster), Calvin Nash (Munster), Peter Robb (Connacht), Darren Cave (Ulster).

Out-halves: AJ McGinty (Sale), Bill Johnston (Munster), Harry Byrne (Leinster), Craig Ronaldson (Connacht)

Scrum-halves: Nick Phipps (Waratahs), Duncan Williams (Munster), Patrick Patterson (Leinster), John Poland (Munster)

Props: Peter Dooley (Leinster), Brian Scott (Munster), Bryan O’Connor (Munster), Michael Bent (Leinster), Jack Aungier (Leinster), Jamie Hagan (Beziers), Vakh Abdaladze (Leinster), Jack O’Connell (Bristol), Ben Betts (Ealing).

Hookers: Dave Heffernan (Connacht), Adam McBurney (Ulster), Mike Sherry (Munster), Duncan Casey (Grenoble).

Second rows: Ian Nagle (Leinster/Ulster), John Madigan (RC Massey), Gavin Coombes (Munster), Jean Droste (Kubota Spears), Quinten Strange (Crusaders).

Back-rows: Scott Penny (Leinster), Josh Murphy (Leinster), Caelan Doris (Leinster), Conor Oliver (Munster), Eoghan Masterson (Connacht), Eoin McKeon (Connacht), James Connolly (Connacht), Matty Rea (Ulster), Matt Dalton (Ulster), Paddy Butler (Pau), Sean Dougall (Pau), John Quill (Glendale).

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