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Matt Williams: Ireland’s player supply chain is overly dependent on Leinster

Cautionary tale of Australian rugby should be heard with trepidation

Supply chains are a series of complex, interconnected systems that we all take for granted. That is until a pandemic, a war or some other catastrophe collides with our world. Then, one day when we walk into the supermarket the shelves are empty.

Rugby is also totally dependent on supply chains. It starts with the development of players in schools and junior clubs. Then the elite player pathway selects players from this pool to move into the provincial academies. Provincial teams then draw from these academies. At the top of the chain, the national team selects the best of the best from the provinces.

So if the schools and juniors decline for a long period of time, eventually, so does the national team.

Rugby’s supply chain in Australia was an almost exact replica of rugby in Ireland. A hand full of schools powered the New South Wales Waratahs, the Queensland Reds and the Wallabies for well over a century.


In Sydney today, rugby in government run high schools, that were so vibrant and produced so many world-class Wallabies, including the Ella brothers, is all but extinct

Teams that won historic victories in European Grand Slams, Bledisloe Cups and two William Webb Ellis Trophies were peopled by a majority of players who had their rugby genesis in the highly competitive Sydney and Brisbane schools competitions. The schools produced quality players, leaders and champions.

While Brisbane’s schools system remains healthy, Sydney’s has radically declined. The haemorrhaging of the production line of quality players in Sydney during the first decades of the 21st century has had a devastating effect on the performances of the Waratahs and Wallabies.

I sat in meetings during the 1990s in Sydney, where rugby officials bragged about the quality of the New South Wales schools that each season provided players of excellence to the Sydney club competition and the Waratahs.

Several of us suggested that the base of the elite player pyramid was dangerously narrow and dependent on only a handful of schools. We called for resources to be prioritised to expand the game across non-traditional rugby schools and new junior clubs. We were dismissed as the leadership believed it was impossible for the schools to fail. It was the height of strategic narcissism.

Declining system

Over time, new school principals were appointed in the established rugby schools, many with differing agendas. Long-term leading schools teachers who coached and drove successful rugby programs in their schools retired. Internal school politics and priorities changed. Budgets were reorganised.

The seemingly impossible situation of a powerful, century-old schools rugby system declining came to pass. In Sydney today, rugby in government run high schools, that were so vibrant and produced so many world-class Wallabies, including the Ella brothers, is all but extinct. While rugby is still strong within the private schools, the pipeline of international quality creative players has, in my observations, ceased.

The Waratahs, a former powerhouse on the world provincial stage, have been humbled to play a minor role in the trans-Tasman competition.

This cautionary tale should be heard in Ireland with trepidation.

If a supply chain specialist reviewed the rugby origins of the players who represented Ireland in this year’s Six Nations, they would be pressing the red warning button.

Bundee Aki, Jamison Gibson-Park and James Lowe were produced by the New Zealand system. Finlay Bealham and Mack Hansen are products of Australia, while Rob Herring came through the South African system and Kieran Treadwell emerged from the Exiles in the UK.

Dave Kilcoyne, Peter O’Mahony, Craig Casey and Conor Murray are products of Munster’s system. Iain Henderson, Michael Lowry, and James Hume are out of the Ulster system, while Jack Carty represents Connacht.

Supply chain

The remaining 18 came out of the Leinster pathway system.

It becomes even starker if we discard the development team that was selected against Italy. Then the overseas systems produced seven players, Munster three, Ulster two and Connacht one. Seventeen came from the Leinster pathway.

Ireland’s player supply chain is overly dependent on Leinster and the lottery of qualifying players developed overseas.

It is a huge concern that Craig Casey is the only player produced by the Munster system to represent the national team in the Six Nations who is under 30.

While several young players did recently stand up for Munster against an equally weakened Wasps and Patrick Campbell is an outstanding prospect who played very well for Ireland under-20s at fullback, the lack of players coming out of the Munster’s schools system, into Ireland under-20s and then progressing onto the national team in recent years is deeply concerning for Irish rugby.

The responsibility for producing high quality players lies with the academy and player pathway programmes across Ireland, under the supervision of the IRFU and David Nucifora

Last September, Munster schools lost to Leinster 34-17 and their under-19s lost to Leinster 27-7. On top of this, the under-20s interpros have mysteriously been tossed onto the garbage heap by the IRFU. There is a suspicion in the rugby community that the scrapping of the under-20 interpros is an attempt to hide the imbalance between Leinster and the weakness of the other provincial academies.

With no under-20 interpros the entire Irish system has no place for the identification of any players who are late developers and blossom after leaving school. This is a huge weakness. Unless a player is identified at a very young age they are lost to Ireland.

This environment has created the need for the Munster, Ulster and Connacht provincial teams to increase their recruitment of players produced from the Leinster pathway. An example is the promising young prop, Jeremy Loughman, who was called up to train with the national squad during the Six Nations. He has signed with Munster and is a product of Athy Rugby Club and Blackrock College.

While Ulster have made significant efforts with their academy in recent years and they supplied a hefty swath of quality players into this year’s Grand Slam winning under-20s team, their senior squad remains littered with players formed in Dublin schools. That was unthinkable a decade ago.

Connacht have recently signed a raft of Leinster players who, understandably, are looking for more playing time. It is clear the national trend is for the percentage of contracted players across Ireland, produced by the Leinster pathway, to increase.

This is not the fault of the provincial head coaches. They can only select from the available talent pool created by the elite player pathway below them. The responsibility for producing high quality players lies with the academy and player pathway programmes across Ireland, under the supervision of the IRFU and David Nucifora.

When the great John Eales lifted the William Webb Ellis Trophy in 1999, nine of his squad had come through the Sydney schools system. Unbeknown to them at the time, the rot had begun to seep into the roots of that great system, that was then dominating the globe.

Currently, the Irish national team are playing excellent rugby with players predominantly produced overseas and from the Leinster elite player pathway. In the short term, Ireland will continue to succeed. However, whether this system is sustainable for the long-term development of elite players that can ensure the future of Irish success on the international stage is highly doubtful.