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Blue bloods: IRFU ‘national’ contract system will continue to load the dice in Leinster’s favour

Leinster are set to have 10 players on Ireland contracts next season with just three from the other provinces on national deals

The IRFU’s central contract system is the core factor underlying the relative strength of Irish rugby. Only New Zealand has a similar model. Yet there’s also no doubt that the union’s system both rewards and favours Leinster to an increasing degree.

On foot of the province securing a Champions Cup semi-final date against Northampton in Croke Park with their 40-13 win over La Rochelle in front of a capacity Aviva Stadium last Saturday, not a day goes by without more good news for the province, be it Dan Sheehan being upped to a national contract next season, the 57-times capped All Blacks utility back Jordie Barrett joining next December and the former Munster outhalf, Tyler Bleyendaal, becoming their new attack coach.

The number of players under IRFU national contracts varies year on year, from 12 to 16, and from the current dozen (after the contracts of Johnny Sexton and Keith Earls’ expired at the end of the World Cup) it will return to 13 next season.

As well as Earls, both Peter O’Mahony and Conor Murray will come off national contracts at the end of this season but have agreed new provincial contracts with Munster which have been supplemented by around 50 per cent by the IRFU. These might be termed parachute payments, designed to offset the cost to the provinces for retaining players whose national contracts are not renewed.


Meanwhile, in addition to Sheehan and Caelan Doris, whose new three-year national contract had already been announced, The Irish Times understands that Jamison Gibson-Park will be belatedly upgraded to a national contract next season. After all, Gibson-Park has been Ireland’s first-choice scrumhalf ahead of Murray for the last three-and-a-half seasons.

Hence, next season Leinster’s allotment of players on national contracts will increase from its current seven (and eight at the World Cup including Sexton) to 10, namely Andrew Porter, Sheehan, Tadhg Furlong, James Ryan, Josh van der Flier, Doris, Gibson-Park, Robbie Henshaw, Garry Ringrose and Hugo Keenan.

Munster, for their part, will go from three (and four last season when including Keith Earls) to just one, namely Tadhg Beirne, while Connacht and Ulster will also have one apiece in the shape of Bundee Aki and Iain Henderson.

Leinster will thus not have to pay one cent toward the salaries of 10 frontline international players, whereas the other provinces will have a combined three who fall into this category, and will therefore have to at least partly fund the contracts of nine more players on their rosters.

As the capital city province, Leinster already enjoy certain advantages. Their schools provide the best supply line of talented players and they have the biggest budget, with the estimated €1 million-plus accrued from last Saturday’s Champions Cup quarter-final sell-out constituting their seventh home quarter-final in the last eight seasons, albeit one was behind closed doors. Hence they can refresh an already high-quality squad with marquee signings such as RG Snyman and Barrett, and so they should.

But this is a classic case of the rich getting richer and the irritation for the other provinces is that the socio-economic and geographical advantages that Leinster enjoy are, as they see it, compounded by the IRFU’s contractual system.

One says ‘system’, but there are no criteria as such for national contracts. Rather, they are based on the belief of one individual that a given player is both an established frontline international and is set to remain one for the duration of that contract. The individual who has been deciding this for the last 10 seasons is, of course, the IRFU’s performance director, David Nucifora. From next season onwards that responsibility will pass on to his successor, David Humphreys.

Back in Humphreys’ playing days, the number of national IRFU contracts was in the mid-20s. The reduction has effectively meant a higher ratio go to Leinster players. Nor is this liable to change any time soon given the age profile of Aki (34), Henderson (32) and Beirne (32) and while one could envisage, say, Jack Crowley, being promoted in time, followed by Brian Gleeson, the under-20 conveyor belt continues to be largely blue-tinged.

All male and female players in the XVs and sevens games, including the academies, are centrally contracted to at least some extent by the IRFU. Accordingly, they can all be called up to training sessions, development tours, A games and so forth. Deducting the 12 to 16 players on national contracts leaves circa 160 or so male players with provincial senior contracts. Each contract is underpinned by the union on a scaled payment structure of €50,000, €90,000 or €110,000, and is individually supplemented by the provinces as they see fit or can afford.

But not only do Connacht, Munster and Ulster all provide more provincial contracts than Leinster, that trio operate on a relative financial knife edge. All three are undergoing some cost-cutting for next season.

Leinster would argue that they should be rewarded, rather than punished, for being bulk suppliers to Ireland, and that Sheehan, Doris and Gibson-Park are being upgraded somewhat belatedly, while James Lowe, first-choice Irish winger for three seasons with 16 tries in 31 games, remains on a provincial contract.

Interestingly, the IRFU are undertaking a review of their contractual system, which will be completed before Humphreys takes over from Nucifora.

Placing 176 or so players into a field in Athlone and letting the four provinces have alternative picks, a la the American football draft system, is not the answer. That would dilute the essence of Irish rugby. But as Leinster prepare for their big day in Croke Park, if the union does not want an overly dominant team in blue for the foreseeable future, a more equitable distribution of wealth might be desirable.

Irish players currently under national contracts until the end of the 2023-24 season

Leinster (7): Andrew Porter, Tadhg Furlong, James Ryan, Josh van der Flier, Robbie Henshaw, Garry Ringrose and Hugo Keenan.

Munster (3): Tadhg Beirne, Peter O’Mahony, Conor Murray.

Connacht (1): Bundee Aki.

Ulster (1): Iain Henderson.

Irish players under national contracts in the 2024-25 season

Leinster (10): Andrew Porter, Dan Sheehan, Tadhg Furlong, James Ryan, Josh van der Flier, Caelan Doris, Jamison Gibson-Park, Robbie Henshaw, Garry Ringrose and Hugo Keenan.

Munster (1): Tadhg Beirne.

Connacht (1): Bundee Aki.

Ulster (1): Iain Henderson.

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley is Rugby Correspondent of The Irish Times